American Elephants

The Fight Over Forests, Owls, and Myths of Nature by The Elephant's Child

                                                                                                photo by Gary Braasch

This cute little fellow is a female Northern Spotted Owl. She’s around 16 ” long, and in trouble.  And she has been trouble as well. Back in the 1980s, before the owl was listed as a threatened species, nearly 200 sawmills were found in the forests of Oregon, and as many in Washington. The Oregon mills were churning out eight billion board feet of federal timber every year. Today, there are less than 80 mills operating. Mills dependent on federal timber have closed, the rural communities which depended on the mills have declined and unemployment in many Oregon counties exceeds 20%—double the national average.

First they said that spotted owls could only nest in old-growth forest, and there were special efforts to see that old-growth was not logged. Then it was discovered that they lived in young forest as well.  Despite a 90% cutback on harvesting on federal lands, the population of spotted owls continues to decline. Was the whole law a fraud?

In 2002, the Biscuit Fire in southern Oregon and northern California burned 500,000 acres, cost $150 million to fight, and destroyed $5 billion worth of timber.  It also killed an estimated 75 pairs of spotted owls. Unmanaged forests have become immense fire traps as the recent fire in Arizona and New Mexico demonstrated.

Washington State listed the owl as endangered in 1988, and began working on a recovery plan. The same year, Oregon Wildlife Commission reaffirmed the owl as threatened and considered protecting it on private lands under the state’s Forest Practices Act. What is the trade-off between owls and people?

The final Revised Recovery Plan, issued on June 30, 2011, calls for expanding protections for owls beyond the nearly six million acres currently set aside.  It also calls for the “removal” — shooting— of hundreds of barred owls. The barred owls are a larger and more adaptable rival of the spotted owl that competes for nesting sites and prey, and sometimes breeds with the spotted owl. There’s no doubt that barred owls are having a negative effect on the spotted owl, but is it  competition or is it just a complication?

We don’t know much about endangered species. The Endangered Species Act has saved remarkably few species. Many species have gone extinct. Many extinct species turned out not to have been extinct after all.  It is extremely hard to count birds or animals in the wild. Should we allow nature to take its course? Assuming that the northern spotted owl  can be saved, how much cost is too much?  Do the preservationists have the right to tell property owners of private land what they may or may not do? There are enormous complications, many myths, and an uncertain way forward.

Environmentalists have a tendency to find an “endangered” species wherever there is a project of which they disapprove.  In California they declared the Delta smelt an endangered species and devastated California’s vast Central Valley, one of the great breadbaskets of the nation. The water for millions of acres of farmland was cut off, and crops and orchards died.  Was the Delta smelt really endangered?  Who knows? Was it worth the devastation to the Central Valley? Probably not.

How much will it cost to protect the northern spotted owl?  The Fish and Wildlife Service says the species could be rejuvenated over the next 30 years at a cost of about $127 million, but all that money will do nothing to help the depressed communities where still more timber will be off limits to harvesting. But the costs go far beyond that. The lumber for building has increased horrendously in cost, and plays no small part in the increased price of houses. We have learned how to use every part of a tree, so we are getting more value out of a tree than we ever did before.

People love the woods,  and want to keep them just the way they are, beautiful, pristine and wild.  But forests are a crop. Their growth cycle is just many years longer than other crops.  Trees start as seedlings, grow up, get old and die. Unmanaged forests burn, trees grow too thickly and need to be thinned. Environmentalists are often ideologues who are more interested in their political ideology than in the health of the natural world. Oddly enough, the increased carbon dioxide that environmentalists fear so, is a natural fertilizer for plants — including forests.

The Endangered Species Act is bad law.  Means well, but ventures heavy footed with giant steps into the woods. Private property owners have been known to cut down all their trees to prevent the possibility of having an endangered species on their land to destroy their use of their own land.  We have no accurate accounting of the costs of endless delays, lawsuits, and cancelled projects. Some are simply because environmentalists don’t like fossil fuels, but a desert tortoise is holding up a solar energy project in the California desert.

On the other hand there are wildlife biologists desperately trying to save species. What would we do with the Neanderthals today?

  • This article from the Smithsonian takes on the battle to save the spotted owl from the point of view of the environmentalists and those invested in the idea of global warming.
  • Professor Alston Chase’s 1995 book In a Dark Wood is a fascinating story of the battle over the spotted owl and old growth forests, assumptions about the environment and the lives of all who have been caught up in the battle. I recommend it highly.
  • Rebuilding the Ark is a new volume of essays examining the Endangered Species Act and how to reform the Act by a number of environmental law experts who evaluate its successes and failures.

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