Some attitudes will never change
Steve Brown's analysis "Researcher adds context to impact of spotted owl" (April 2 edition) reported on a new economic study on the Olympic Peninsula. The study found that the economic hardships experienced by Olympic Peninsula communities during the 1990s were not just the result of logging restrictions to protect the Northern spotted owl but were also caused by "other factors" including globalization of timber markets and the growth of minority populations.
I was one of the forest activists who worked to protect ancient forests during that period; I am also a university-trained economist. Back in the 1990s I pointed out that timber-dependent communities in Northwest California were especially prone to boom-and-bust cycles. I also documented the fact that unemployment rates twice the California average in Siskiyou and other Northwest California counties -- which timber industry shills attributed to the Northern spotted owl -- had been regularly experienced by these communities during economic downturns long before the forest owl was listed pursuant to the Endangered Species Act. Others made similar arguments in the Northwest.
In those days few would listen to such arguments; but they are memorialized in newspaper archives across the region.
Today we are again in recession and once again the ESA is being blamed for high unemployment in the rural Northwest and California. This time the species are typically salmon and steelhead and ag shills have joined the timber shills. But if one compares rural unemployment rates in Northwest California to the state unemployment rate one sees that things have indeed changed.
Unemployment in the rural areas is higher than the state average. This is true across the country. But no longer are unemployment rates in rural Northwest California counties 200 percent of the state rate; now they are more in the range of 50 percent to 60 percent higher. What has changed?
The economies of rural communities in the Northwest and California have diversified. Forest products and logging are still important; but retirement, recreation and other quality-of-life industries have developed. Footloose businesses -- those which can operate over the Internet from wherever they choose to locate -- are increasingly choosing the rural Northwest and rural Northwest California, which are attractive in part because of ancient forests and clean streams which the Northern spotted owl helped protect. Diversified economies are more resilient and less prone to boom-and-bust cycles as compared to economies dominated by a single industry.
So will rural communities put up memorials to the Northern spotted owl and hail that forest denizen as the communities' savior whose listing pursuant to the ESA forced economically healthy diversification?
I wouldn't hold my breath waiting. Most rural Northwest and Northern California leaders are still in denial and still mindlessly attached to their status as victims of the Endangered Species Act and "them durn rad'cl 'varnmentlists."