By Donella Meadows
–April 8, 1993–
The poor spotted owl has been dragged into a controversy that has nothing to do with owls. The standoff in the Pacific forests, which Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has called a “national train wreck,” was caused, as train wrecks, car crashes, and oil spills often are, by intoxication. Owls are implicated because the intoxication is addictive, and the addicts, typically, point the finger of blame in every direction but their own.
Logging jobs and the communities based on them are hurting because the old-growth forests are nearly gone. The forests are nearly gone because the first principle of wise management was violated — don’t cut trees faster than they grow. Timber companies love to tell us about their reforestation programs, but if those programs were bringing up trees as fast as the trees come down, no jobs would be at risk. The companies are addicted to a short-term rush of income, while they steadily eat away the source of their long-term existence.
The industry moved its overcutting onto our public lands in order to disguise its previous binge on private lands. Addicts do that kind of thing, not just to hide their addiction from others but to hide it from themselves.
Addiction creates around it a system of enablers. The original enablers were the loggers and logging communities and the Japanese, who suck up cheap uncut logs from all over the world. The construction industry at home enabled too, by enjoying a brief period of bargain lumber. The Reagan administration’s lack of concern for the environment and the law enabled the overcutting to spread to the national forests.
The National Forest Management Act of 1976 requires that the government develop a plan to use each of the 156 national forests sustainably. That does not mean no logging; it means logging at a rate equivalent to regrowth. The plans were developed. If they had been followed, there could have been a secure flow of timber, steady jobs, stable communities.
They were not followed. The addicts couldn’t settle for social drinking, they wanted to stay on their bender. So they bribed the politicians. The politicians corrupted the Forest Service. The plans for sustainable harvest stayed on the shelf. From 1980 to 1988 lumber production in the Pacific Northwest went up 19 percent, almost entirely because of bigger cuts on federal lands. Timber industry jobs during that time fell 14 percent. Raising the cut is clearly not the way to keep everyone employed.
Addiction dulls the addict into thinking everything is fine, while quietly making everything worse. So many logs came to the market that the price fell; therefore the cut had to be increased just to keep the same amount of money coming in. Mills and processing plants were built up beyond not only the ecological but also the economic carrying capacity. A hundred mills shut down between 1980 and 1986, long before the environmentalists stepped in, because of “depressed prices and stiff competition.”
The addict’s desperate solution was “cut more.” Cutting records in national forests were falsified. “Beauty strips” were left along the roads, so citizens who never venture from their cars would think the forests were still there. But some citizens walk and hunt and fish in those forests, or fly over them. They could see the expanding devastation. They wrote letters, spoke out, demonstrated, shouted, and sued. No one who was making out from this addiction — not the politicians, not the loggers, certainly not the companies — wanted the truth told. It’s dangerous to interfere with an addict on a rampage. “Tree-hugger” you get called. “People-hater.”
Finally the whistle-blowers invoked the strongest environmental law of the land, the Endangered Species Act. That’s how the owl entered the story. Politicians and corporations dragged their feet, ridiculed the science that called the owl threatened, and went to court, but eventually the law prevailed. Logging on federal old-growth lands was slowed.
Now we’re in the stage of painful withdrawal. It was the pain that moved Bill Clinton. He has given his staff 60 days to figure out what to do about the shattered families, broken communities, companies in receivership, and shaved hillsides that bleed topsoil into streams that used to support trout and salmon. It will be decades before there are enough mature trees to support a thriving timber economy again. The people caught in the middle, the workers and their towns, certainly need support. So do the addicts.
Alcoholics Anonymous knows that to support an addict in recovery, you have to be tough. The harmful behavior has to stop. Amends have to be made. The addict, not the sponsor, not the public, has to make them. Unfortunately the new president has already established a pattern of making tough proposals and backing off whenever anyone says “ouch.” It’s doubtful whether that pattern ever works; in this case it certainly won’t.
The managers, stockholders, and politicians who enjoyed the rush of addiction have to acknowledge their problem and get some discipline into their lives. They also have to pick up the bill, as far as possible, for the damage they caused. Otherwise, without a resolute sponsor, they’ll just take off for the forests of the Southeast to get another fix.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993