By Donella Meadows
–June 28, 1990–
The Fish and Wildlife Service has finally declared the spotted owl an endangered species. The decision will, if the administration enforces the law of the land, drastically cut back logging in the owl’s habitat — old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest.
The logging companies are fighting back. They will go to court to “dispute the science” behind the finding. Knowing that the science is not on their side, they have also leaned on the administration not to enforce the law. And they are trying to get the law changed.
The law in question is the Endangered Species Act. The companies want it to take into account economic considerations. If it did, they say over and over to the press, the politicians, and the public, we would never choose to sacrifice 28,000 jobs for an owl.
That is not the choice at all, of course. The choice is not between an owl and jobs, but between a forest and greed.
On the side of the owl and the forest: The spotted owl is, like every other species, the holder of a unique genetic code that is millions of years old and irreplaceable. Even more important, the owl is a canary, in the old miners’ sense — a sign that all is well. It is an indicator species, a creature high up the food chain that depends upon a large area of healthy land for its livelihood.
Every thriving family of spotted owls means that 4000 acres of forest are well. The trees are living their full lives and returning stored nutrients to the soil when they die. Two hundred other vertebrates that live in the forest are well, and 1500 insects and spiders, and untold numbers of smaller creatures. The spongy soil under the trees is storing and filtering rain, controlling floods and droughts, keeping the streams clear and pure.
When old-growth is clearcut, the trees and the owls disappear and so does everything else. Burned slash releases to the sky nutrients that have been sequestered and recycled by living things for 500 years. What’s left of the soil bleeds downhill as from an open wound. Waters cloud and silt, flood and dry up. The temperature goes up, the humidity goes down. It will take hundreds of years to regather the nutrients, rebuild the soil, and restore the complex system of the intact forest, IF there is still old-growth forest around to recolonize, and IF the forest companies stay away.
They are unlikely to stay away. On their own land they replant with a single, commercially valuable, fast-growing species and call it a forest. It bears as much resemblance to a 500-year-old natural forest as a suburb of identical ticky-tacky houses bears to a Renaissance cathedral.
Ecologists call such plantations “cornfields.” It’s not at all certain how many cycles of these cornfields will be possible, given the loss of soil and nutrients when they are cut every 50 years or so.
As to jobs and greed: In the past 10 years 13,000 forest-related jobs were lost in Oregon alone, though the annual cut increased. The jobs were lost to automation and to moving mills offshore, not to the Endangered Species Act.
The forest companies are interested not in jobs or forests, but in multiplying money. Old-growth forests yield higher profit than second-growth plantations. Therefore 85 percent of the old-growth is already gone. The companies have stripped it from their own lands. Nearly all that remains is on federal land, owned by you and me. In Washington and Oregon 2.4 million acres of old-growth are left, of which 800,000 are protected in National Parks. The rest, in National Forests, is marked for cutting.
Our elected representatives are selling off old-growth logging rights in National Forests at a rate of about 100,000 acres per year, and at a loss. Taxpayers are subsidizing this process. At the present cutting rate in about 20 years all but the last protected bits will be gone. The owls will be on their way out — the 800,000 acres remaining will be too fragmented to sustain them. The jobs will be gone, not because of owls, but because of exploitive, greedy forestry.
We are doing just what we so righteously plead with the Brazilians not to do. We are destroying the biological treasure of an intact forest for short-term benefits, inequitably distributed.
If loggers and their communities cannot be sustained by second-growth cutting on private lands, then they were in trouble anyway. A compassionate nation would look for a dignified way to help them build a viable economy. It wouldn’t sacrifice the biological treasure of an intact forest to keep them going 20 more years. That’s the kind of behavior we are righteously pleading with the Brazilians to stop.
The Endangered Species Act does not and should not take into account economic considerations. Economics does not know how to value a species or a forest. Its logic drives us to exploit resources to the point of extinction. The Act tells us to stop at 80 or 90 percent, not to proceed crazily to 100 percent. It was enacted by a Congress and President in a wise mood to express a moral concern, not a bottom line. It should not be weakened. It should be enforced.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990