Originally published in the Wall Street Journal 07/30/11 -
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So what is 20 years of failed efforts to save the northern spotted owl followed by a new plan that is equally unlikely to succeed? Does the Endangered Species Act allow us to accept failure—or must we press on without regard for the likelihood of success and the economic and human costs of the effort?
Clearly, the federal government and environmentalists believe we must press on. Two decades after millions of acres of federal forests in the Northwest were virtually closed to logging, with devastating consequences for a once flourishing timber industry, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued its “final” plan to save the owl.
No one really expects the strategy to work—not even those who first brought attention to the plight of the spotted owl. As Forest Service biologist Eric Forsman told the New York Times last month, “If you’d asked me in 1975, ‘Can we fix this problem?’ I’d have said, ‘Oh yeah, this problem will go away.’” But he says he’s grown “much less confident as the years have gone by.”
And for good reason. Despite a 90% cutback in harvesting on federal lands (which constitute 46% of Oregon and Washington combined), the population of spotted owls continues to decline, as do rural communities that once prospered across the Northwest. In some areas, spotted owls are vanishing at a rate of 9% per year, while on average the rate is 3%.
In the 1980s, before the owl was listed as threatened, nearly 200 sawmills dotted the state of Oregon, churning out eight billion board feet of federal timber a year. Today fewer than 80 mills process only 600 million board feet of federal timber. In Douglas County, for example, several mills dependent on federal timber have closed. Real unemployment in many Oregon counties exceeds 20%, double the national average.
Meanwhile, vast unmanaged federal forests have become immense fire traps. The 2002 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 resulted in the deaths of an estimated 75 pairs of spotted owls.
The final Revised Recovery Plan, issued on June 30, calls for expanding protections for owls beyond the nearly six million acres currently set aside. Ironically, it also calls for the “removal”—i.e., shooting—of hundreds of barred owls, a larger and more adaptable rival of the spotted owl that competes for prey and nesting sites, and sometimes breeds with the spotted owl.
How much will it cost to implement this plan? The Fish and Wildlife Service says the species could be rejuvenated over the next 30 years at a cost of about $127 million. But that money will do little if anything to rejuvenate the depressed rural communities of the Northwest where still more timber land will be off limits to harvesting.
The truth is that no one fully understands why the spotted owl continues to decline. The rise of the barred owl poses an unexpected, but not surprising, complication. If the natural world would just remain static, species preservation and ecological management would be far simpler. But Mother Nature relishes competition, and the barred owl is a fierce competitor. Are we really prepared to send armed federal agents into Northwest forests in search of barred owls? And what will groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have to say as the carcasses pile up?
In the early 1990s, when the spotted-owl controversy reached its peak, people desperate to save their jobs and communities joked about having spotted-owl barbecues. Today it seems that the joke is on those who believed science always has a solution.
And even assuming the spotted owl can be saved, is there no cost too high? How many millions of acres of forest must be abandoned? How many rival birds must be killed? Would anybody really notice if barred owls displaced and interbred with every last spotted owl in the Northwest?
For most Northwesterners it was never really about the owls anyway. It was about preservation, in some pristine state, of some of the planet’s most productive forests versus the management of those forests to serve the interests of mankind. But even preservation proves to be an elusive goal as forests age and debris accumulates to feed the next forest fire.
The spotted-owl saga provides convincing evidence that it’s time to re-examine our objectives and methods in species protection, followed by appropriate amendments to the Endangered Species Act.