Talk Newspaper: By Jeff Golden: One of the things we didn't see clearly was that a thousand other communities would be crawling over each other to land the same employers, who tended to pick sites where "fixed overhead" — ie, your paycheck — would as low as possible.

"End of an Era: Boise Cascade Leaves White City"

— Mail Tribune front-page headline, March 8

Dear Ray,

As I read last Sunday's lead story in the Medford paper, the one under a splashy picture of yellow machines bulldozing the last big sawmill in Jackson County, I thought of you. Actually, I thought of your picture, which is the only way I know you. See, we've never actually met, though we did spend an evening together with a few thousand of our closest friends. I don't even know your name, but when I lived in the logging community of Butte Falls, it seemed like every third guy was Ray. So I'll use that.

I know you remember the night I'm talking about. It was early May, 1989, in the South Medford High School Auditorium, where the County Commissioners were taking public comment on the red-hot timber crisis. I was up on the stage running the meeting, and according to the picture that showed up across the country the next morning, you were somewhere toward the back of the hall. What landed you on all those front pages was your hat: a ball cap with a stuffed owl mounted on top. Through its head ran a two-foot arrow.

I wonder what you're thinking if you saw last week's story. That you told us so? That you said way back then that the freakin' environmentalists were destroying the forest products industry and the Oregon way of life? That those bulldozers were traveling the last few feet of a path that stretches back to the decision to preserve wildlife habitat and other non-timber values on the public forests?

I hope not. It's a sure bet that you've had those I-told-you-so urges over the years. In at least one case — the upbeat projections of a post-timber Rogue Valley economy — you had it right. Back then I was part of the economic development frenzy to grow new job sectors here — high-tech, tourism, health care — so that you could find new ways to support your family. One of the things we didn't see clearly was that a thousand other communities would be crawling over each other to land the same employers, who tended to pick sites where "fixed overhead" — i.e., your paycheck — would be as low as possible. So your $200/day paycheck in the woods likely shrunk to one-third or half that size, probably for work that gave you one-third to half as much satisfaction. In that case, you told us so.

Which doesn't mean we could keep mowing down old-growth forests. What environmentalists were saying back then was that we were living beyond our means. For centuries, nature had deposited continuously into a coniferous bank account that we were drawing down to the dregs in a generation. It was fun while it lasted, a spacious gravy train that had room, one way or another, for you, me and practically everyone who lived or did business in Southern Oregon. You denied that reality when times were good, Ray. But then so did I and just about everyone I know, in different ways. Denial's a lot harder to pull off today, isn't it? No-document mortgages on houses twice as big as we can afford or need, cars and furniture at no-money-down-no-monthly-payments-zero-interest-until-2011!, dwindling reserves of fresh water and fertile topsoil, credit card debt that grows like toxic algae, a national currency that might still be more credible than Monopoly money — is anyone still unclear that we've lived beyond our means? The day of reckoning just happened to arrive earlier for you, Ray, than for most of us.

So what to do now, both about forests and folks like you who want to work in them? That was an easier question to answer a while back, when the nation had an actual building industry that needed actual forest products. None of the answers that remain are silver bullets. None are as easy or painless as when we rode the gravy train, but we don't get to go back to those days. We'll stir the pot of current possibilities in another column soon.

In the meantime, Ray, it's good to check in with you again. Sorry for the rough times you've had since that night when your hat made you famous. Maybe they've taught you a trick or two that the rest of us could use now.

Keep taking care,

Jeff

(P.S. You still have that hat? Are there still places to wear it?)

Jeff Golden, a Jackson County Commissioner from 1987-91, is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the recently released novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.