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What do you say to 'we told you so'?

You may have heard it already. You're almost sure to hear it in the wake of stories like the Mail Tribune's "Wages for Life" (Sept. 20), which reported growing numbers of Rogue Valley workers struggling mightily to survive at or near minimum wage.

You'll hear four bitter words: We Told You So. We told you what would happen if we couldn't maintain our customary timber harvest levels from federal forests, if we "shut down the woods," if we let the environmentalists/preservationists/tree-huggers have their way.

We told you what would happen if we put spotted owls above people.

We told you that workers and communities would suffer. Now just look.

The We Told You So (WTYS) folks are right about the economic suffering. But there's an assumption central to their case that could take us wildly off course if we don't challenge it. WTYS makes sense only if you believe that the astronomical harvest levels of the 1950s through 1980s could have continued to the present day. It's difficult finding anyone who really knows Oregon forestry - from university scientists to timber executives who concede that "mistakes were made" to dislocated loggers - who believes that.

The 40 years following World War II were the Northwest timber industry's unique heyday. Brilliant new technologies for falling, moving and milling logs combined with a booming post-war lumber market to turbo-charge the rate of cutting. Our forests became part of an enormous integrated industrial complex that helped build modern America. The industrial model calls for driving down unit costs, and the best way to do that was to move the highest possible volume of high-value (i.e, old-growth) timber to the mills as efficiently as possible, saw it up, stockpile it and offer it for sale when demand was high. In the process enough profit was generated to satisfy executives, shareholders and investors and have enough left over to lift blue-collar workers solidly into the middle class.

Those were good years for a lot of Oregonians. The harsh fact is that all this prosperity was built on the kind of economic principles you'd expect from a teenager with attention deficit disorder and his first credit card. The Northwest forests were a resource account that grew rich over the course of centuries. In about four decades we almost managed to empty it out.

We didn't empty it entirely. We didn't cut the last big tree. But almost every veteran logger will tell you the writing was on the wall. The old-growth timber crash of 1989-'90 could have been pushed back a few years. There could have been a few dozen more big paydays for a dwindling pool of timber workers. That dwindling, we should remember, had nothing to do with tree-huggers and spotted owls. The industry was rapidly automating production; according to its own trade association, about twice as many workers were needed to process a million board feet of lumber in 1979 than in 1984.

It's reasonable to guess that trend would have accelerated through the 1990s, a decade of scorching technological progress.

The other underestimated job-killer was the massive export of raw logs that could have been processed in American mills. That dynamic would have probably cost far more timber jobs in the 1990s, as much of corporate America sought lower labor costs by relocating every possible factory offshore. So those former millworkers pumping gas today in Medford find themselves in the same crowded boat as millions of other Americans who lost manufacturing jobs that paid better than what they earn today. It's hard to believe these low-wage workers would be doing much better if environmentalists had never been born.

But couldn't we have deferred the pain and kept the big logs flowing a while longer (some might say that wouldn't have helped workers much, but even a short-term extension of a good job matters when it's your job)? Yes, but at a cost: the further stripping of the resources Southern Oregon needed to shift to a viable tourism and recreation economy.

The obvious problem is that the new economy pays workers much less than the old one did, but the WTYS folks don't have a better answer to that daunting global puzzle than do any of the rest of us. And most don't seem especially interested in helping to find one. Heaping on the blame is much easier.

Jeff Golden is the host of Jefferson Public Radio's The Jefferson Exchange and author of "As If We Were Grownups."