Western town goes from timber to telecommuting

Hollowed-out logging community pins its survival hopes to Internet, not chain-saw

For decades here on the Pacific slope of the Olympic Peninsula, timber from the bounteous rain forests created not only a robust rural economy but also a proud, self-reliant culture.

Successive generations made good livings and built Bunyanesque identities by felling Douglas fir, driving log-laden Peterbilts, and producing finished boards in local mills. That was before the spotted owl put old growth off limits, before lumber companies had clear-cut so much land, before that wholesale tree farm known as the US Forest Service had cut back on its timber sales.

Now memories of logging have faded. Most buildings along the main drag of US Route 101 are cast in a washed-out patina of greens and browns, besieged by annual rainfalls measured in feet.

This is a town fighting for survival, and a handful of local citizens are focused on a radical solution wrought of fiber-optic cable and satellite signals.

If their vision becomes reality, Forks has a chance of not only keeping its name on Washington State road maps but also of becoming a model for other rural communities from here to the Punjab.

Their aim is to make Forks a high-tech hamlet in the global village, bringing Internet-based industries to the hinterlands. In the process, these visionaries also hope the city's existing employers will discover new ways of running old businesses. "It's no different for Forks than it is in Tasmania or Africa or eastern Washington," says Kathy Cunningham, the city's economic-development director. "Telecommunications infrastructure is as essential as your electrical or your water or your sewer."

While the venture flies in the face of gritty local traditions, its boosters say only such a radical metamorphosis can save this town of 3,460 - the only semblance of civilization along the 233 miles of US Highway 101 between Grays Harbor to the south and Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula.

"I could see it being a ghost town here in 10 years if things continued to go as they were," says Roger Harrison, who works at the local hospital.

Indeed, with the economy imploding, local high school graduates go off to college and seldom return, creating a backwoods brain drain. The population shrinks, growing older and less educated. So Forks has embarked on a high-tech makeover, allying with the local school district, hospital, telephone company, and an obscure program under the auspices of Washington State University to begin creation of something called an Integrated Community Network (ICN).

Fiber optics for woodchips

Technologically speaking, an ICN begins with identifying a community's future needs and then equipping all parties with the appropriate fiber optics, microwave relays, and perhaps even satellite links to permit its vision to take off.

Practically speaking, the Forks ICN remains mostly on paper. Last January, phone company CenturyTel selected the town for a pilot ICN. In April, Forks held a "vision workshop" in which individuals and institutions began drafting their future. Now, as the assessment continues and budgets are drawn up, ICN boosters are working to build community support.

"If I'm going to sell birdhouses or ... wooden furniture, it doesn't matter if I'm in Forks or in Michigan," Mr. Harrison says. "Time and place don't matter so much any more. And I think that's the thing that people in rural communities need to recognize."

In many ways, Forks is a classic rural community. It has the usual assortment of businesses - four banks, three gas stations, two hardware stores, and a bowling alley. It also has those enterprises that let you know you're not in Mallville, USA - the bookstore that sells antiques and the Boot 'n' Shoe that doesn't sell boots or shoes but clothing.

There is no 12-screen cineplex here - no movie theater at all - so residents only connection with Hollywood is the local video store. When residents want an upscale dinner, they drive to the Smoke House, across the Calawah River, or the Vagabond Restaurant and Lounge, in the central business district on US 101, not far from the only traffic light between Hoquiam and Port Angeles.

In this settled timber culture - even one that exists primarily in wistful memories - romantic notions die slowly. Logging was difficult, dangerous, honest work. Even more important, it was bigger than life. To a family with logging in its photo album, the choice between an old Stihl chain saw and a new Compaq computer is no choice at all.

Getting people to give up the lumberjack persona for that of a cybergeek will take a remarkable feat of social engineering. Several years ago, when the state offered to retrain out-of-work loggers in the Forks area, few applied. People resented what seemed like government meddling. Worse, they didn't want to renounce their heritage to become, say, alcoholism counselors.

Advocates of the ICN know the challenge, but see little choice. So Ms. Cunningham, a former city councilwoman, imagines a vast array of niche businesses that could be lured to Forks - a fishing rod business here, a digital outsourcing center for Boeing there.

Playing the keyboard, remotely

Indeed, this is precisely what Dee Christensen is working to achieve. As manager of the Telework Program, an arm of Washington State University's cooperative extension program, she has worked with employers in crowded cities to enable home-based "telework."

Ms. Christensen is trying to convince one Puget Sound employer to spin jobs out to rural areas with available labor. Unfortunately, in Forks, that workforce is growing all the time - via new unemployment. The latest sign: Pay 'n' Save, a drug store, will close this September, costing 70 or so jobs. "We're fighting for our survival right now," says John Jones, superintendent of the Quillayute Valley School District, which has put e-mail and the Internet at the fingertips of teachers.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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