Why Endangered Species Protection vs. Economic Development Doesn't Have to Be a Win- Lose Scenario

By Richard L. Wallace

In the U.S. Pacific Northwest advocating endangered species protection in the wrong place could get you killed. Dennis Winters, an activist in the Wise Use movement was speaking to a Montana timber community when he said, "What's happening out there is nothing less than the eviction of the only endangered species really in Montana, and that's the working Montana family. We're going to have 30 percent unemployment, and long with that comes wife-batterment and child molestation, and all the rest of it. Now, do you think environmentalists give a damn about the fact that kids are going to be molested?"

Being accused of promoting child molestation due to species protection is a pretty original condemnation for any environmentalist. But this effusive call to guard against heartless environmentalists rests on a backdrop of the United States' most volatile environmental controversy of the last five years. The American West is a land of Wise Use and property rights advocates and long-held beliefs that access to land, and the resources it holds, is a divine right. Protection and promotion of endangered species bring out in many advocates of land use rights a venomous streak that often makes Dennis Winters sound like Captain Kangaroo. In Oregon and Washington, states with many communities strongly reliant on the timber industry for their economic well-being, warnings in the mid-1980s that protection of the spotted owl would mean setting aside much old growth forest (the owl's primary habitat) on public lands brought death threats against U.S. Forest Service participants in annual mill town celebrations. And the Forest Service were perceived as the good guys among the federal agencies.

The argument went like this: the owls are dependent on the old growth forests for their habitat. They are threatened with extinction and listed under the federal endangered species act. Protecting the owls means protecting the old growth forests. Old growth forests -- those comprised of trees that have never, at least since colonial times, been cut down and are often up to several hundred years old -- are favored by timber companies who make large profits on the amount of wood yielded by each old growth tree. Oregon, Washington, and, to a lesser extent, northern California are dotted with many communities built around mills, the operation of which is dependent on the old growth and other timber provided by the timber companies which, thanks to sizeable government subsidies, cut much forested public lands, which are managed mostly by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

The red flag went up in timber communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. Environmentalists, it was said, meant to shut them down, leave them jobless and destitute, all to protect a nondescript predatory bird. Bumper stickers started showing up reading "Spotted Owl Tastes Like Chicken" and "Save a Logger -- Shoot an Owl." When it became obvious that court battles and policy wrangling in Washington, D.C.'s far away halls of power might lead to limits on old growth logging, the issue became very clear cut in many peoples' eyes: protecting owls meant the loss of the timber communities' economic lifeblood. President Bush, our self-proclaimed environmental president, even made it a campaign battle cry. "We'll be up to our necks in owls," he told the timber communities of Washington and Oregon in 1992, "and every millworker will be out of a job."

Rhetoric and innuendo are infectious. President Bush's words were exactly what the timber communities feared most, and exactly what the politicians representing them wanted everyone to hear. And, indeed, the logging restrictions came as expected. Substantial restrictions on old growth logging have been in place since 1991, first by court order, and subsequently by order of the Clinton Administration. Widespread economic ruin was predicted for the Pacific Northwest. The Clinton Administration, which held a northwest "Timber Summit" in 1993 to bring to the table representatives of all the affected parties to discuss the future of old growth logging, proposed a number of economic alternatives to the reliance on timber harvesting and particularly on the old growth forests. These included job retraining for mill workers and the creation of economic incentives for businesses in other sectors to come to the communities that would lose logging jobs.

Oregon offers insight into the results of the Clinton Administration's efforts. Between 1989 and 1994, Oregon lost 15,000 forest-related jobs. But during the same period the state gained 20,000 jobs in other areas such as high technology, thanks to the Hewlett Packard Corporation expanding its operations in the state and the Sony Corporation's new factory outside of Eugene. Oregon's unemployment rate is its lowest in 25 years. In 1995 for the first time in the state's history forest-related industries were replaced as the leading employer. High technology is now number one. And still, Oregon is among the nation's leading producers of timber, despite the reductions in old growth logging.

The outcome? Owls and old growth forests are being protected. Unemployment is low as the number of jobs increases, even in Oregon's most timber-dependent areas. Thanks to the job retraining programs and economic incentives for businesses, new employment opportunities are not minimum wage service industry jobs with little room for advancement, but skills-laden opportunities in diverse fields. Instead of being up to their necks in owls and jobless millworkers, Oregonians are up to their ears in jobs and unemployment rates throughout the state are largely lower than the national average.

"Owls or jobs" was a political tool of the reactionary right. And although the carefully crafted rhetoric pulled along many in its wake, the success of Oregon's economy is testament to the power of integrative ideas that shun the new Republican mentality that equates compromise with capitulation. Many shortsighted and self-interested politicians, and almost the entirety of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, would have you believe that today there is no room for compromise. Yet they would also have you believe that a repeal of all environmental protection, including laws limiting air and water pollution, protecting endangered species, and maintaining our national parks and protected areas is necessary for the economic health of our country.

This is nonsense. The Republicans' true interest in the environment is to remove all barriers to industry -- whether it's timber or ranching or oil and gas production or the auto industry or any other that promises to line their greedy hands with cash. For those Republicans who support the Contract with America, prosperity in America means ensuring that each and every one of them has a sizable check made out to the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee from an industry that he or she has let off the regulatory hook. Or, at least, a high-paying industry job waiting for them when they are rousted out of office because their insidious plan to deregulate the physical, economic, and environmental safeguards of every average American citizen is laid bare. I say don't give them the chance to get there.

Compromise works. Oregon is not the only example. The Clinton Administration has proposed Endangered Species Act exemptions for small landowners as well as giving more authority to the states to regulate endangered species protection on the local level. The Department of the Interior has worked hard to forge agreements with industry on a case-by-case basis to balance endangered species protection with economic development. Agreements with businesses in Arkansas and North Carolina to protect red-cockaded woodpeckers and in Oregon to protect spotted owls are among those reached this year.

Be prepared for the upcoming election. Don't be fooled by the Republicans' spurious claims that environmental protection is going to cost you your job. They thrive in an arena of fear and desperation. As a nation and a people, we can thrive on compromise and cooperation.

Richard L. Wallace is a Ph.D. student in natural resource policy at Yale University.

Copyright 1995 Richard L. Wallace