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The Bleeding Hearts Dry Up 2 - Spotted Owls

How is it a success to destroy thousands of jobs, but save no owls?

By Will Offensicht  |  November 25, 2019

We opened this series with a discussion that surely triggered many of our more conservative readers: the historical fact that, on their own premises, the anti-Vietnam-War protesters of the 60s were both right and successful.  They did indeed end American participation in that war, and in doing so, they did indeed save American lives that would have been lost had our soldiers stayed there longer, to be shot at more times.

Similarly, the Civil Rights movement had a clear objective, and at the very least made large, historic strides toward that objective that have without doubt improved the lives of those the movement leaders claimed to want to help.

These were both momentous issues which were literally matters of life and death.  The civil rights activists' goal of granting black people the rights they should have had all along was worth a great deal of effort. Similarly, although people differed over whether the war in Vietnam should be fought or not, there was no doubt that ending the war would save a significant number of lives on both sides of the conflict, which is what eventually happened.  The subject of the debate was whether objectives of the war were worth spending American lives on, but nobody questioned the fact that the cost of the war was high in terms of both talent and treasure.

As protest against the Vietnam War began to pay off in political terms, new groups of activists started worrying about the lives of lesser beings: animals in danger of going extinct.  After much agitation, the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, two years before the Vietnam War officially ended.

Pro-animal groups started using this new law to urge that species which they considered to be endangered be given federal protection.  Once a species was officially declared to be threatened, activists used that declaration to force landowners to stop activities which they could argue put pressure on endangered animals.

The act had no provision for compensating landowners whose rights to use their land were curtailed.  Landowners found that if they saw protected animals on their property, it was worthwhile to protect their right to use their land by doing whatever the could to eradicate the critters - whose welfare was considered to be more important than their own welfare - before anyone noticed they were there.

One of the more controversial uses of the Endangered Species Act involved the Northern Spotted Owl, a nocturnal bird which lives in old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.

As its population was declining to the point of being endangered, the owl was listed as "threatened" throughout its range in northern California, Oregon and Washington on June 23, 1990.  The United States Fish and Wildlife Service blamed loss of habitat.  At that point, animal protection activists allied themselves with tree-huggers, activists who opposed pretty much all logging, to stop logging activity in forests where spotted owls lived or were said to have ever lived.

The logging industry estimated that up to 30,000 of 168,000 logging-related jobs would be lost because of the owl's status, which agreed with a Forest Service estimate.  Harvests of timber in the Pacific Northwest were reduced by 80%, decreasing the supply of lumber, idling sawmills, killing jobs, and increasing the price of wood used for housing.

The controversy was heated - bumper stickers reading Kill a Spotted Owl - Save a Logger or I Like Spotted Owls - Fried and a product called "Spotted Owl Helper" which claimed to be able to stretch the small amount of meat on an owl enough to make a hamburger, supported the loggers' losing cause.

Over time, thousands of relatively well-paying jobs were lost.  Mature trees were left to die and rot instead of being harvested.  This pleased the tree-huggers because letting trees die and rot instead of turning them into housing was so much more "natural."

Environmentalists didn't say much as the owl's population continued to decline.  Stopping logging didn't even slow down the spotted owl's decline.  The wildlife agency observed that an invasion of barred owls into the spotted owl habitat was a major factor in the decline.

After listing [as threatened], it was predicted that reducing habitat loss, primarily on federal lands, would eliminate the threat of extinction and put the northern spotted owl on the road to recovery. However, after nearly two and a half decades of protection under the Endangered Species Act, the spotted owl is not showing signs of recovery and, in fact, its situation has worsened. This is due to the arrival of an unforeseen player on the scene, the barred owl (Strix varia). ...

As a result of the barred owl invasion in the west, spotted owl populations are rapidly declining in many areas.  [emphasis added]

The agency proposed to help the spotted owl by culling barred owls, but animal rights activists who are convinced that a natural forest is a place where the hand of man has never set foot were fiercely opposed.

This clear and convincing evidence that their activism was so badly misguided that it failed to have any effect upon their stated goal hasn't registered with the activists.  They argue that if no action had been taken during the time it took to realize that logging wasn't the primary cause of the owl's decline, but that logging had actually been an important cause, it would have been too late to save the owl by the time the investigation was complete.

The fact that their efforts didn't work doesn't seem to matter to them because the foot soldiers in the movement were so sincere in their desire to help the owl.  Having pure motives seems to excuse any outcome, no matter how undesirable it may be for society at large or useless even on its own merits.

Although saving spotted owls is presumably less worthwhile than saving human lives by stopping a war, it's easy to argue that animals deserve some degree of protection from human activity.  Put another way, it's difficult to argue in favor of just about any animal species going extinct - even annoying and deadly species like mosquitoes have the useful and beneficial purpose of feeding birds.

The loggers couldn't argue in favor of killing owls.  Their only argument was that the loggers' jobs were more important than the owls, a position contrary to the Endangered Species law.  Anyone who argued against the environmentalist position was slammed as being a tool of greedy "big timber" interests, much as anyone who argues against banning straws is portrayed as being paid vast sums by Exxon in a sinister plot to "Plunder the Planet."

Having seen the amount of political power collected by environmental groups and seen reports of the contributions they're able to raise to advance the cause of "Save the Critters," we wonder just how sincere their absolutist "bleeding heart" arguments about saving any and all critters regardless of cost really are.  Environmental activists don't seem to be willing to discuss trade offs.  If they'd admitted that their job-eliminating measure to protect the spotted owl had more or less failed because habitat loss wasn't the only reason or even the major reason for the decline, we could take their arguments on other issues more seriously.

It appears, however, that activists never admit that their policies could possibly have any down-side, much less that they might fail entirely.  They appear to have a fervent faith in the total virtue of their cause regardless of the damage to human society imposed by protecting various species - and that, in the final analysis, that their virtue is the only thing that matters to them.

We've noted, however, that as "community organizing" in Chicago took Mr. Obama to the White House while leaving Chicago neighborhoods with murder rates worse than in Guatemala, saving the owl brought a lot of money and power to various "save the critter" groups.  They've learned how to wage lawfare against any building project they dislike to the point of forcing developers to set aside major portions of their land as permanent wilderness, for example.

Whether the actions they promote have positive effects or not seems to be irrelevant, given that their supporters don't care and are willing to lobby on their behalf and contribute money regardless.  Lest you think that wildlife protection is an isolated case of goals unmet at vast societal cost, we'll discuss other ineffectual, but highly profitable, crusades in the next few articles.