For Darrington, disaster is a blow it can little afford

DARRINGTON — On a rainy afternoon last week, some locals were talking in a coffee shop on what was once a busy street. Now it is lined with mostly empty storefronts.

The conversation was about keeping trails open for hikers and bringing fishing back to nearby rivers. They talked of bringing tourism and recreation dollars into this remote mountain town, which has fought economic decline for decades.

About 14 miles to the west, search crews were still looking for victims in the massive debris field of the March 22 Oso mudslide, which wiped out a neighborhood, killing at least 41 people.

The slide buried Highway 530, Darrington’s main link to the I-5 corridor and the outside world. The road is still covered. Residents driving to work or doctor’s appointments — and delivery trucks, school buses and other vehicles coming into town — have to take a detour north, adding a couple of hours of driving each way.

The detour has pinched pocketbooks and is affecting businesses’ bottom lines.

State transportation officials say a temporary bypass road around the debris field could be opened to local traffic in the next few weeks, and the highway could be rebuilt in a few months.

Neither time frame is too soon for Darrington.

“If they don’t get that road open by summer, this tourist season is going to be very skinny,” said the Rev. Les Hagen, pastor of Glad Tidings Assembly of God.

The church has given out about $2,000 in gas cards to a couple of dozen residents, he said. Other groups also have been giving out gas cards to soften the financial blow of the road closure.

Millions of dollars have poured in for disaster and economic recovery.

The SBA has approved $400,000 in low-interest loans for those affected by the landslide. Fourteen loan applications have been accepted so far. The SBA oversees such loans to businesses that are damaged or suffer economic losses from a natural disaster and administers loans to homeowners to help with damages not covered by insurance.

On Thursday in Arlington, two dozen area business owners shared their worries with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Maria Contreras-Sweet, director of the SBA and a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet.

And on Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the state and United Way of Snohomish County would give the town’s biggest employer, Hampton Lumber Mill, $300,000 to offset the added trucking costs due to the detour.

Since the slide, the mill has racked up about $514,000 in added expenses trucking cut boards to market, said Tim Johnson, the mill’s manager.

The road closure has also created a backlog of inventory. Bundles of cut boards are stacked wherever there is room. Johnson said the backlog is about 11 million board feet.

“It was at 13 million earlier this month, so we’re making progress,” he said.

The mill, one of eight owned by Portland-based Hampton Affiliates, employs 160 people and cuts about 200 million board feet of lumber a year.

The slide and the road closure sparked rumors that the mill is going to close.

Not true, Johnson said. “We’re not leaving, especially since we know the road is coming back.”

The added trucking costs are significant but not enough to push the mill into the red.

Its fortunes are more tied to the housing industry, which is slowly but steadily coming back from the 2008 economic collapse.

The mill has long-term contracts with home improvement stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, and also sells directly to retailers, such as the Dunn Lumber Co.

Its logs come mostly from Weyerhaeuser logging operations, generally within 100 miles. It also buys some from the state. Contracts for logs are signed sometimes up to a year in advance, Johnson said.

“These are long-term contracts. There’s no switch you can just shut off,” he said.

However, if the detour and its additional costs persist, the mill might curtail operations to minimize those extra expenses, he said. “It would be truly a temporary curtailment.”

The detour is hurting many of the town’s smaller businesses, as well, and many commuters are spending weeknights west of the slide.

So many people are away during the week that it has cut business in half at Nels Rasmussen’s chiropractic practice.

“My road practice is keeping me afloat right now,” he said. One day a week, he drives to Bellingham and Camano Island to see patients.

Like others in town, he’s worried what the road closure will do to the tourist season, especially the summer music festivals.

But even if the road reopened tomorrow, it wouldn’t change the fact that Darrington is an economically depressed community for reasons other than the slide.

At the Arlington meeting with the head of the Small Business Administration, business owners expressed the need for help in the short term but also “want us to think about the long term and how to help grow and diversify the region’s economy,” said Cantwell, who is chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

As head of the Darrington Area Business Association, Rasmussen knows the town’s challenges well.

Like others in town, he wants to bring meaningful jobs to Darrington, jobs that can support middle-class families.

Darrington used to have those jobs when the timber industry was still buzzing 30, 40 years ago.

Back then, there were four town-league baseball teams: the Merchants, the Union, the Rangers and the Gyppos.

Gyppos is a term for small, independent loggers. They sponsored that team.

Store owners bankrolled the Merchants. Unionized mill workers funded the Union team. A small army of permanent and seasonal U.S. Forest Service employees backed the Rangers.

The sawmill’s former owner, Summit Timber, broke the union in the 1980s. The storefronts are mostly empty, federal budget cuts drastically reduced the number of Forest Service employees, and only a handful of gyppo loggers remain.

Darrington’s mayor, Dan Rankin, is one of those loggers. He runs a one-man sawmill.

“I live a good life. I might have wants, but I don’t have needs,” he said in his office in the city hall, which also houses the local library.

A light rain was falling outside. Rankin had just come back from Arlington, wrapping up another long day since the mudslide.

His vision of what Darrington’s economy could be is wide open.

“Almost anything that occurs on the I-5 corridor could happen here,” Rankin said, referring to small manufacturers that sell to overseas markets. Being 32 miles farther down a highway doesn’t make a big difference if you’re exporting your product halfway around the world.

While Darrington’s economy could benefit from that kind of diversity, the town’s fortune will depend most on increasing timber harvesting in the area, Rankin said.

He and other local leaders are formulating a plan to do more logging — practiced responsibly — on federal land.

Logging has been Darrington’s lifeblood since early in the 20th century. The area once supported several sawmills and logging operations. The high school’s teams are the Loggers.

But logging has mostly vanished, curtailed by federal laws and rules intended to preserve natural resources.

Many Darrington residents see those rules as job-killers, sacrificing the town’s livelihood to save northern spotted owls, to name the most famous roadblock to timber harvests.

Rankin doesn’t want to go back to clear-cutting. He and others are sure there is a middle ground — responsible logging that can satisfy environmentalists and allow locals here to pay their mortgages.

“There are a lot of barriers along the way — geographic, political, bureaucratic, popular perceptions. It’s hard to gain momentum,” Rankin said.

There’s another barrier: time.

“The people doing the work” to revive the local economy “already have jobs. This is what we do in our spare time,” Rankin said. “So, it may not look like we’re gaining momentum, but we’re making tracks and hopefully we can pique somebody’s interest.”

They know that right now, with the area in the national spotlight, they have the ears of senators and members of Congress.

Jerry Cornfield contributed from Olympia.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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