The Biden administration recently laid out its plan to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s land and waters by 2030. It’s a vision echoed by the G7 leaders and shared by sixty countries, and its need is backed by science. Two international panels emphasized recently that climate change and biodiversity loss are intertwined, first-order threats. When animals and plant species are dying out at alarming rates—more than 1 million species now face a risk of extinction—scientists warn it could lead to a ‘ghastly future.’
The history of environmental protection is one marked by protests, usually from affected industries. No doubt, there are tradeoffs. Instead of ignoring them, we should quantify them. But policymakers rarely use a data-driven approach to assess these choices, leaving policies vulnerable to political whims. The 1973 Endangered Species Act is no different. The Act has been plagued by an age-old tension between conservationists and industry, with industry setting up a hard choice between saving wildlife or jobs.
The “poster species” behind the tension has, for more than three decades, been an owl. Specifically, the northern spotted owl living in roughly 200-year-old forests in the Pacific Northwest and northern California—also known as logging country. After decades of logging led to a dwindling owl population, the owl was designated as threatened in 1990. Soon after, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set aside 6.9 million acres of the old forests as protected, which prohibited logging in 40 percent of the industry’s resource base. The logging industry claimed this would result in as many as 130,000 job losses.
The battle continues to fester even today, with President Trump removing a large chunk of the habitat from protection as one of his final acts in office (though the Biden administration has paused this lift and will likely reverse it). But decades removed from the major policy shift, we still lacked an evidence-backed answer on whether the industry’s claims had come true, while also accounting for the changing conditions in the logging sector. So, my colleague Ann Ferris and I sought to answer that question. Putting industry shifts and two recessions aside, we found that loggers and timber operators did lose their jobs directly because of the owl protections. The losses were on the order of tens of thousands; not the more than 100,000 claimed by the industry.
In our work we compared timber employment in affected counties to similar counties in unaffected surrounding areas, as well as nationally. Relative to the national level, timber employment dropped about 28 percent in the affected counties, reflecting 32,000 jobs lost. Compared to surrounding counties, the affected counties saw only a 14 percent loss in timber jobs, reflecting 16,000 jobs lost.
To put those job losses into context, most of those laid off had worked in the logging and timber mills specific to the old forests. Once they are cut, new growth forests do not sustain the same number and types of jobs. If the logging had continued unchecked, the old forests would have been gone by 2000, or 2050 at the latest. The jobs were unsustainable.
The owl protections shifted forward by a decade or so job losses that were inevitable. In return, we were able to prevent the northern spotted owl from dying off and protect an entire habitat of species. The returns from that tradeoff could be quite large, beginning with the creation or enhancement of natural amenities that attract new residents, new recreational activities, and even new jobs in other industries. These are returns the Biden administration hopes to see from their 30×30 plan.
The story of the northern spotted owl has become a cautionary tale for those who want to prevent the protection of species and the conservation of land. Consider though that it’s difficult to conceive of an industry so directly responsible for the ravaging of habitats as logging, especially when that logging occurs in old growth forests so rich with biodiversity. They are therefore more directly impacted by the protection of those lands in a way that even mining or oil and gas drilling is not. The story of the northern spotted owl is not a cautionary tale. It’s a worst-case scenario—and hardly the catastrophe some thought.