Whoo Decides How Much Is Enough?

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From the New York Times in September:

Looking around the stand, Laurie Wayburn, co-founder of the Pacific Forest Trust, which manages this 2,200-acre forest plot for the Fred M. van Eck Forest Foundation, sees a variety of things: thick, straight trees that will generate millions of dollars for the foundation; a healthy forest that filters drinking water and stores carbon dioxide; and a maturing, complex habitat for a variety of animals, including the endangered northern spotted owl.
The adage that northern spotted owls compete with forest jobs should be left to rest. There is value in old-growth forests, but to argue that preserving land is the only way to safeguard the owl is myopic. Forests are dynamic and so are species. Interestingly, science is too.

Science is the knowledge and inquiry of the natural world. Science demonstrates what is and what could be under varying conditions. Science does not, however, measure relative values.

Science cannot tell us whether timber jobs or acreage set aside for spotted owls is better. That is value based. Nonetheless, the Endangered Species Act makes it clear that species on the brink take precedence over other land uses.

In the early 1990s it was heartily argued that the northern spotted owl was competing with timber jobs. Indeed, it was determined that the primary threat to the northern spotted owl was decreased old growth as a result of timber harvest. A couple of decades later the forests have changed, the management has changed, the threat to the owl has changed, but policy argues for more of the same: preservation.

What does science tell us about the forest policy to protect the northern spotted owl?

  • Owls like mature, old-growth forests. But they also like managed forests.
  • In 1990 it was presumed that decreased old growth acreage in the Pacific Northwest was the primal threat to the northern spotted owl. In 2011 it was determined that the barred owl, a competing species that displaces the spotted owl, is the greatest threat.
  • Under the 1994 Pacific Northwest Forest Plan, 24 million acres of federal land was designated as northern spotted owl habitat. Seven million of those acres prohibit timber harvest. Harvest in the Pacific Northwest has declined by more than 80 percent as a result. Timber consumption has not similarly declined, so timber is cut elsewhere to meet demand.
  • Forests are dynamic and have changed between 1994 and 2003. About three percent of the habitat set aside for owls was lost to wildfire and insect infestation. Set aside forests are aging and becoming more vulnerable to fire and insect infestation over time. Newly matured national forest acreage suitable for owl habitat increased by about eight percent.
The critical habitat revisions proposed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 aims to set aside more land for the owl, increase active management, and remove the barred owl.

Science cannot provide the policy solution to saving the northern spotted owl. It is inherently preference based.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and...
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