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Grays Anatomy: A Timber County Embraces Green

On the Washington coast, an economically distressed timber county is going green. Grays Harbor County wants to transform itself from a community of extraction to a community of renewables.

As part of our series on Northwest communities reinventing themselves, correspondent Austin Jenkins introduces us to some young adults at the forefront of this economic transformation.

Twenty-three year old Lisa Marthe knows what people think of her hometown.

 Grays Harbor
Timber still dominates the Grays Harbor economy, but the county is re-tooling.

Lisa Marthe: "When I went away to college and everybody asks you know where are you from I say I'm from Aberdeen, oh that place is a hellhole."

Back then Marthe kind of agreed. But two years ago she moved back home and now works for Imperium Grays Harbor — the nation's largest biodiesel plant. Some of her friends still can't believe she returned to 'The Harbor', as she calls it.

Lisa Marthe: "And a lot of them look at me like you're crazy. But I mean I came back I've got an excellent job with an up-and-coming company. You know I'm only twenty-three and I was able to buy a house here."

Then there's thirty-two year old David Quigg — director of marketing for Grays Harbor Paper.

David Quigg: "I left Hawaii to come back to Hoquiam to work for the family business and it's been two years and I don't want to go anywhere else."

These young professionals are the poster children for Grays Harbor County's economic comeback. As kids they lived through the timber crash of the early 1990s — witnessed the mill closures and layoffs, the anger over spotted owls and environmentalists. Today they're part of an effort to diversify Grays Harbor County through green manufacturing.

David Quigg: "Somebody said we were green — the greenest paper mill in North America and we said how dare you, don't call us green."

Quigg prefers the word sustainable. For example, Grays Harbor Paper burns wood slash from logging operations to make steam and power for its paper factory. 

David Quigg: "We could save money and dump our waste in the river and buy virgin fiber from Asia. But we don't."

Grays Harbor County's manufacturing base is still dominated by timber giant Weyerhaeuser. But this is an economy that's re-tooling. Besides the biodiesel plant there's a new state-of-the-art saw mill that can handle small-diameter trees. There's also talk of an ethanol plant. The changes have caught 24-year old Krister Lile by surprise. He recently moved back home from San Francisco — but wasn't planning to stay long-term.

Krister Lile: "I come back here, staying with my folks and trying to figure out well what the heck am I going to do. Suddenly all the things I want and I'm interested in start falling into place."

Lile is a budding interior designer hip enough to be featured on HGTV. At a company called PanelTech in Hoquiam Lile checks out some countertops made out of recycled paper. He says something's happening in his hometown.

Krister Lile: "There's new companies, there's new people, there's money coming in, there's some development and now suddenly I think people are starting to come out of the woodwork and be like 'hey let's do it'. I'm in to this place and I want to help out."

But the trick is getting the broader community on board.

As the lunchtime whistle blows at the paper mill, there's a video shoot underway on the banks of the Hoquiam River.

Director: "Looks really good in frame."

The crew is shooting a video that will be shown throughout the county. It's the story of a lone canoeist struggling against the forces of nature. Eventually he's rescued by a boat full of people. And together they paddle into the future. Perhaps a bit hokey, but David Quigg says it's a metaphor for Grays Harbor County. Still there are still plenty of challenges. The young entrepreneur readily admits his family's green paper mill is struggling.

David Quigg: "We're barely squeaking by. It is a battle every day. But we know, we hope in the end that the good guy wins."

In recent years Grays Harbor County has battled back from double-digit unemployment. But layoffs and mill closures are still a part of life here. And it remains to be seen if a rising economic tide built on renewable manufacturing lifts all boats — or just some.


Next in our series on economic development in the rural Northwest, we go to Joseph, Oregon. It's trading chainsaws for high art.

On the web:

Grays Harbor County Economic Development