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Forests, shores and the future: How one district can sway the state

The 35th District includes some of the state's great scenery. Credit: Seattle Top Story

On a bright summer day in Hoodsport, the booths of a street fair showed off local personality and skills. They offered crafts, souvenirs and treats. The Lilliwaup Community Club was selling skewers of tasty grilled oysters wrapped in bacon. A local craftsman displayed a wooden trailer home that was like a mini log cabin on wheels, complete with a porch and pot-bellied stove. Another booth offered hand-carved signs with such witticisms as “We Don’t Skinny Dip, We Chunky Dunk.” I poked my head into a booth with lots of black T-shirts, Ninja stars and items you'd never find at a Seattle street market: very realistic toy guns, one of which appeared to be a replica of a sawed-off shotgun. A Facebook friend of mine later joked about it, "You gotta admit nothing says lazy days of summer like a couple of kids playing No Country for Old Men."

They all offer clues to the identity of the 35th Legislative District: oysters, timber products, tourism, earthy humor and toys for discontented youth. Contrary to the joke, the district is a country for old men, and women, with a rapidly aging population and plenty of rural retirees. But it’s more than its demographics, as all places are. It’s district unlike any other, shaded by geography, history, and economy. It’s also at a critical juncture. Its dominant politician, state senator and Mason County commissioner Tim Sheldon, has been a pivotal player in determining control of the state Senate. The district has an independent streak and Sheldon, a nominal Democrat, helped tipped control of the state senate from his party to a coalition controlled by the Republicans. If there’s much about the 35th district that reflects old-school Washington, it also has real, contemporary political relevance.

This year's state Senate elections will be critical to determining whether Gov. Jay Inslee and his Democratic supporters are able to move ahead on raising new revenues to support public school improvements, put together a package of transportation projects to be financed by increases of up to perhaps 10 to 12 cents in the gas tax and create new incentives for controlling carbon emissions to help fight global warming. With only a three-vote majority in the Senate for the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, any seat that could flip is big.

Like much of the land around Puget Sound, the 35th District was settled and explored by whites starting in the mid-1850s, more easily done then by canoe and schooner than by land. Its shorelines offered both isolation and opportunity, especially the dense old growth timber. When George Vancouver’s naturalist, Archibald Menzies, observed the area in 1792, he was impressed with it as “one continued forest of Pinery." That “Pinery” is still a dominating feature, part and parcel of the district's dynamics and politics, not to mention its actual fragrance.

Map: Kate Thompson

The district ranges from Bremeton to the Olympic National Forest to the mysterious Mima mounds prairies, thought to be the trace of either glacial floods or prehistoric gophers. It covers remote wilderness where the sheriff's radios don't work as well as the bustling corridors of Highway 101 and I-5. The district's boundaries stay largely rural and exurban, generally avoiding most population centers.

Geography is a key to its identity and economy. Hood Canal is a vacation paradise in the summer, the shoreline encrusted with vacation getaways and retirement dream houses. It is Salish Sea waterfront that's still relatively affordable, unlike, say, the San Juan Islands or Bainbridge Island, though well-to-do Seattle families like the Nordstroms and the Gates have retreats along the canal. Driving along its shores is comforting in that you get that sense of the old Northwest that was accessible to everyone, including retired shipyard workers and machinists, the era when waterfront wasn’t just for the rich. Here, funky beach houses and blue tarps still have their place. State parks with beaches, picnic areas and boat launches appear at regular intervals. You’re in the lap of the Olympics, and shellfish beckon on the beaches. On summer days it’s bright and brilliant. Otherwise, it can be as wet and gloomy as it gets.

Mason County, core of the district, is still known as timber country. It is largely forested with both private and public lands. Simpson, which still operates mills there, though much reduced, was Shelton's Boeing. It was a company town for the last century where practically everyone worked in the wood products industry. Simpson dominated, owning the timber, the railroads and mills. At one time, a young man could get a job at Simpson and be there for life. In old Northwest sawmills towns, you used to know these men by their missing fingers. On my recent visit, I wasn’t counting digits, but the lumber business seems less intense than it was in the cut-it-all era. Timber work is more seasonal now, more selective, more mechanized. It is not the driver of employment that it once was, but it's at the heart of Mason County's identity.

The Mason County Historical Society in Shelton occupies a century-old building currently undergoing renovation thanks to a grant from the Seattle Foundation. Its exhibits are a jumble during the restoration work on the interior, but they seem to largely consist of the helmets, hobnail boots, photographs and tools of timber workers. It feels a bit like a logger's attic. Down the street on Railroad Avenue is a statue of a lean, clean-shaven, humbly heroic logger, with a plaque reading, "Dedicated to the Men and Women of the Woodworking Industry Who Have Carved the Communities and Living Out of the Forest….Sometimes at the Cost of Their Own Lives."

Paul Bunyanism still lives in Mason County with the annual early summer Forest Festival and its demonstrations of the logger's skills. In Allyn, just north of Shelton, a roadside attraction is Bear in a Box, which bills itself as the "world's largest" chainsaw art outlet. They even run a school for would-be chainsaw artists where vacationers can take a three-day course. I walked among giant bears, totems, mushrooms, seals, eagles, Indians chiefs, sea captains and even a life-sized Sasquatch (only $2,800) brought to life out of massive cedar logs, a clunky folk art that substitutes for pink flamingos and garden gnomes in many rural yards. In keeping with timber tradition, the 35th's incumbent state senator, Sheldon, often wears suspenders, timber country's equivalent of the cowboy hat.

Wikimedia Commons

Some years ago, in a dispute over a controversial incinerator project, someone described Mason County's economy as "obliterate, incarcerate, incinerate." Obliterate had to do with logging practices, and this is a part of the state where signs remind you that the timber clear-cut you see on the roadside is in fact a "working forest." Incarcerate refers to the fact that the Washington State Corrections Center outside Shelton is a major employer and incarcerator, with 647 employees overseeing 1,268 offenders. The biggest employer is the Squaxin Island tribe's Little Creek Casino and Resort on Highway 101 between Shelton and Olympia. According to the Mason County Economic Development Council, in 2012, after Little Creek and the prison, schools districts, the local hospital and the county were the major employers. Wal-Mart, the county’s only major retailer, was No. 6 and Simpson now ranked at No. 10.

In some cases, the absence of some things just adds to the area’s appeal, if not its economy. There are no huge shopping malls and big chains stores are few. In Shelton, I ate lunch at Nita’s, owned by a woman in her 90s who’s been running the café for over 60 years. It’s the kind of real, non-ironic diner with great pies and homemade potato salad that has all but vanished from small-town America, which has been malled and Subwayed to death.

There is more to the old resource economy than timber, too, and some of it thrives now. At the same time Simpson began its timber operations in 1890 so too did the Taylor family enter the shellfish business. Oysters are a big deal in south Puget Sound. Again, geography is a factor. The area is fingered with fjords and inlets, peninsulas, bays, islands, inlets, mudflats and tidelands. It's a landscape that seems designed for smugglers, not industry, and it makes the district's enclaves hard to reach. You can look across a bay at a neighboring community, but without a boat, it might take you an hour to drive to visit your neighbors. Navigating the district isn’t easy, and it’s said to be particularly difficult for county law enforcement.

But that tangled geography means there's a lot of room and shoreline for farming shellfish, and Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton is now a global operation and the #7 employer in the county. Owner Bill Taylor — great grandson of the founder — estimates oysters mean some $60 to $70 million to the county economy. Oyster demand is booming. It was big in the 19th century and had now surged — a renaissance Taylor calls it  — thanks to the popularity of urban oyster bars and booming Asian consumer markets.

Taylor cultivates oysters, clams, mussels and even geoducks. The company is also a major advocate for improvements in water quality. A core product are Pacific oysters that have been called the "canary in the coal mine" of ocean acidification due to increased carbon levels in the atmosphere and ocean that can kill off young oysters or prevent them from forming healthy shells. Taylor has had to adapt to changing conditions to keep its business alive and flourishing, but there are big concerns about its future in the era of climate change. South Puget Sound might be off the beaten track, but it's already impacted by both the global economy and carbon emissions. 

Gov. Jay Inslee looks at young shellfish during a recent visit to a Taylor Shellfish facility. John Stang

So, the district still leans heavily on the public sector and resource economies, but also has the challenge of managing conflicting impulses. Mason County and the state have invested millions in improving water quality in the south Sound, but there are ongoing issues, like leaky septic systems and finding funding to cover other long-term costs associated with water quality, such as dealing with old toxins in Shelton’s Oakland Bay or finding ways to deal with Hood Canal’s low-oxygen “dead zone.” Public sector employment is large, but even local Democrats remain skeptical of taxes. And, despite the Sound and the shellfish industry's place in the economy, voters in the district are not all that enamored of environmentalism, which became a dirty word during the Spotted Owl wars of the 1980s and '90s that some still blame for the timber industry’s decline.

Some observers say the politically purple Mason County, once a blue stronghold, is trending redder. This may in part be due to the aging of the population — it has nearly twice the percentage of adults 65 and older as King County. It's not alone in that. The entire Olympic Peninsula population is aging and has — and will continue to have — the largest concentration of seniors in the state, percentage-wise. These folks trend conservative, live on fixed incomes, are often change- and tax-averse. Mason County voters have been described as socially liberal but fiscally conservative, which seems to track with the drift of 35th district politics.

For example, the district voted for the legalization of pot and currently has one working marijuana farm, which has the potential to help revive the agricultural economy in a high unemployment area. But some Shelton residents were alarmed at plans for growing operations in their neighborhoods and recently convinced the Mason County commissioners to institute a moratorium on pot farms until zoning issues are revisited. A young industry nipped in the bud, as it were, by NIMBYs.

Another factor in the shifting politics might be the difficulty in retaining and attracting young people. With population and employment growth generally stalled there's not much yet to replace it. Cary Bozeman, former mayor of Bremerton, part of which is in the 35th, has leveraged his experience transforming that city's waterfront into a consulting business for other communities in the area. He's currently working with the city of Aberdeen on a proposed waterfront revitalization plan. But Bozeman, who is a supporter of Olympic community college in Bremerton, says he's convinced that the Olympic Peninsula’s challenge is the lack of a four-year college. Young people generally have to leave to get their degrees. Such schools can help incubate new businesses. Jobs for college educated young people in the 35th District are lacking — high-tech firms are hardly flocking there, blue-collar work doesn’t require a degree. Rural counties and towns with large percentages of poor, unemployed, elderly and seasonal employment can be unattractive for young people — and for the future.

Mason County is working on an economic development plan. Bill Taylor says the county is at a crossroads, contemplating a future choice he summarizes as the "Rust Belt vs. Walla Walla." Does the county want to grow and move beyond a fading timber-based economy? Can it develop beyond seasonal Hood Canal tourism? Can it redefine itself as, for example, Walla Walla did when it converted from a traditional agricultural town to a modern wine producing region supported by local higher-ed programs that dovetail with their economic direction?

Mason County and the 35th district are faced with a challenge from within, between the folks who like the place as it is — cheap real estate, relative isolation and low-tax country living — and those who want to see more public investment, employment growth and a sustainable economy that's tapped into where the economics of the region and globe are headed. One recent move toward the future: the county’s PUD is bringing high-speed Internet to many of the far-flung communities via 400 miles of fiber optic cable.

The 35th district holds some pivotal political sway for the state as a whole this year in terms of whom it elects to office. A victory for Tim Sheldon alone could set the state more firmly on a course of carefully divided if not gridlocked government in Olympia. His defeat could open the way for a more progressive Democratic agenda during the remaining two years of Gov. Jay Inslee's term. If the district returns to blue or becomes more reliably red that would have an impact, too. All the while, the district is wrestling with trying to find a new place in a post-Paul Bunyan world, without giving up what makes it special.

For all of Crosscut's stories on the 35th District race, click here.

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