the county economy rested on timber,directly through
logging and milling and indirectly through Forest Service
employment. Timber-related employment began to decline
in the 1980s, dropping from 820 in 1979 to 620 in 1988.
At that time, harvest restrictions were placed on federal
lands, limiting local timber supply and raising log
prices. Timber harvest from federal lands dropped from
an average of 250 million board feet to less than 5
million in 1996. Scarce timber and competition from
chipboard substitutes led to the closure of Stevenson
Co-Ply, the largest mill remaining in the county, in
early 1992. The job loss was accompanied by loss of
savings because the mill was a co-op. By 1993, only
180 timber jobs remained in Skamania, and federal employment
has fallen from a peak of 420 to only 240 in 1996.
While most of Skamania is in forested, mountainous
terrain, the bottom strip of the county borders the
Columbia Gorge. The Gorge has influenced the county
economy in two major ways. In the 1978-82 period, construction
of a second powerhouse at Bonneville Dam boosted county
construction employment, chiefly through construction
workers commuting into the county. This had the unfortunate
side effect of skewing county labor force estimates
in the 1983-89 period; through use of a faulty commuting
ratio, the labor force size was underestimated and the
unemployment rate overestimated.
In 1986, about 15 percent of the county was made part
of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. Creation
of the NSA, while placing some restrictions on development
in the Gorge area, has helped augment the county’s
growing tourism industry. Federal subsidies helped build
Skamania Lodge, a conference center/destination resort,
now the largest private sector employer in the county.
An interpretive museum is now in operation, and other
retail and service spin-offs have come on line. In addition,
a number of manufacturing jobs related to windsurfing
have been created.
The transition from timber to tourism has had a number
of effects. Population growth began picking up in 1990,
as did labor force growth. Because of fewer job opportunities,
almost half of Skamania County's labor force commutes
to work outside the county. Unemployment rose sharply
in 1992 with the mill closure, reaching 18 percent before
declining to the current 6.9 percent.
Only a few years ago, one-third of the jobs in the
county were in manufacturing; by 1996, the number had
fallen below 15 percent. With the advent of the Skamania
Lodge, trade and service employment rose from 19 percent
to a 36 percent share, while the public sector accounted
for 43 percent.
The annual average wage for jobs in Skamania has fallen
steadily over the past two decades (with the exception
of the powerhouse construction years). In 1996 the average
was $20,896 per job. In comparison, inflation adjusted
wages in the early 1970s were $30,000 per job. Per capita
income has not declined; mainly because of increases
in investment income and government transfer payments.
But, at $22,758 (2003), it remains 32 percent below
the state average.