By Donella Meadows
–July 4, 1991–
The newspapers are scapegoating again — or rather scapeowling.
Lumber prices have shot up. One month ago a federal judge halted logging licenses in old-growth national forests to protect the habitat of the northern spotted owl. So we find on the front page of our local paper a big diagram showing an owl gazing down on a big jump in plywood price.
The lead sentence reads: “Protecting an endangered owl in the Pacific Northwest has led, in part, to a sharp rise in wholesale lumber prices — up 30 percent and more in recent weeks — and that has started to seriously concern suppliers, retailers, and customers in the region.”
This is illogical, biased, and divisive journalism. There is no necessary link between the owl and the price hike. To assert that link is to express the point of view of only one side of a hot argument — the side of the logging industry. And to make a strong visual connection between expensive lumber and owls is to bring the ire of building suppliers, construction workers, and homeowners down onto environmentalists — who are not at fault here.
If some companies in the Northwest cut less in old-growth national forests this summer, that will not reduce stocks of lumber much and cannot have reduced them at all yet. Prices must be higher because of opportunistic or apprehensive over-reaction on the part of logging companies, sawmills, or market intermediaries — somewhat like the spike in oil price last year when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
The surge in lumber costs is coming from a combination of hedging, speculation, and the instabilities of the market. Other possible causes were listed in the article, about 15 paragraphs down, on the back page. They include last year’s cutbacks at lumber mills, wet weather in the South, strong demand from Japan, and retailers restocking inventories. With all those complicating factors, why lead off by blaming an owl?
There’s an easy answer to that question. The lumber companies have gone to great pains to get us to see things that way. They point to environmentalists as the bad guys in order to divert attention from their own deception, corruption, and greed.
The nation’s forest resources have been underpriced for decades. That’s partly because of sweetheart deals between the industry and the Forest Service, which has sold many logging concessions in our national forests not only below market value, but below government cost. Lumber prices have been artificially low because of a hidden taxpayer subsidy.
They have also been artificially low because of unsustainable logging rates. The forests have been cut much faster than they can regenerate. Eighty-five percent of the magnificent old-growth forests of the Northwest have been leveled in just a few decades. These forests will take centuries to regenerate, if they regenerate at all.
Old-growth forests are gone on lands owned by forest companies. If recent cutting rates continue, they will be gone on public lands too in 15-20 years. We won’t run out of lumber then, only of the high quality big boards on which the companies make a special profit. Prices will rise, but not to the speculative heights they’ve just reached. Forestry jobs will be lost, but not all of them. More jobs will be lost, and have already been lost, to automation.
The choice is whether those things will happen now, when there is still some forest left, or a few years from now, when the forest is gone, and with it the owl and many other species that cannot live in the slash, second-growth, or single-species plantations that will follow.
The owl is not the issue. We must talk about owls only because of the way the Endangered Species Act works. It is the only legal instrument we have for stopping private parties from exploiting a natural resource to death. Therefore those who want to protect old-growth forests for our children have to hang their argument on a poor, innocent, endangered owl.
No one likes the Endangered Species Act. Despoilers of nature hate it, of course. Environmentalists dislike it because it reduces their argument to absurdities. Rather than pleading for an owl, they would like to plead for a forest, for a whole ecosystem, for the old-growth trees that absorb the rain, purify the waters, control the floods, build the soils, cool the land, and shade, feed, and shelter thousands of interacting species.
The Endangered Species Act itself is endangered. As you might expect, there is great pressure to amend that act to “allow economic considerations.” What that will mean is that you can endanger all the species you want, eliminate all the ecosystems you want, as long as you make a profit.
The Endangered Species Act should not be touched, unless it is replaced by an even stronger measure that lets us talk about the long-term protection of ecosystems and resources. That will never happen if the media continue to endorse industry’s cheap shots about jobs versus owls.
The story here is much bigger than that. It’s about profits versus forests, about the collusion of government and corporations, about making prices tell the truth. It’s about people finding the courage to take government back into their own hands and to make it stand for the good of all instead of just a few. It’s about our stewardship of God-given resources, our self-discipline, our democracy, our deepest values.
It’s a great story. I wish the reporters would get onto it.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991