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All History of US Environmental Policy

Week 7: Endangered Species Act

In the 1980s, the Northwest U.S. rural economy relied heavily on logging. Ever since Europeans came to North America, the gorgeous old-growth forests appeared to stretch out infinitely, with a sense of endless abundance. Thus, they thought, cutting down parts of it could never endanger the ecosystems and species in any permanent way; this thought continued well into recent history, and the argument continues to this day with Republican policymaking. Unfortunately, while the forest reserves were vast, no solid natural materials are infinite. (Solar and geothermal power, compared to our harvesting, are, but that’s another topic.) The logging, mining, and agriculture supporting a large percentage of jobs in these Pacific Northwest towns were living off the natural bounty inheritance, and were not sustainable to continue long-term. Whether the stopping came from environmental protection before the ecosystems collapsed or after, the scaling down of billions of board-feet of logging these forests was inevitable.

When scientists began realizing logging was destroying the habitat for the spotted owl—among many other species, but the owl became the front-page species—it coincided with the energy of two decades of public interest in sweeping environmental legislation, including the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The ESA required the government, after a species became listed as threatened or endangered (a long process, but one luckily separate from the question of economic impact), to protect habitat, both on federal and private lands. The logging industry knew this could be an existential threat in the region, depending how much forest was conserved. And similar to company towns all over, the industry convinced citizens in these areas their livelihoods were under great threat from the ESA.

Though conservationists were hoping for dramatically larger reserves, and the politicians—conservative, but not in a conservation way—managed to get wins for the timber industry, land was reserved. This habitat, unique old-growth forest, helped many species recover. While large numbers of logging jobs in region were lost, this unstable, dangerous industry could not survive at the rate it pretended to. The industry undersold the ability to retrain logging workers, and how the ESA’s application led to significant investments in habitat restoration projects, which have created jobs and provided economic benefits for rural communities while protecting the endangered species. If the Pacific Northwest logged away its natural beauty, the loss in tourism, the ability to attract new residents, and cultural relevance that would keep it healthy long-term.

The ESA has been instrumental in protecting and conserving endangered species in the Northwest US, despite the economic tradeoffs it engendered. While extractive industries suffered losses, the ESA led to the creation of new economic opportunities, and habitat restoration and wildlife tourism have had significant economic benefits for rural communities. Short-term thinking about economic development and environmental protection has a long history, but this story in the end demonstrates the ESA’s continued effectiveness at improving the U.S.