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Owls vs. jobs: sorting out the impacts.

Put old-growth forests, the northern spotted owl, and timber jobs in the same sentence, utter it out loud, and you're sure to get a volatile argument in the Pacific Northwest--and beyond.

People on one side of the issue see the ancient Northwest forests as a rapidly diminishing vestige of America's native woodlands, a world-class temperate rainforest rich in plant and animal life that may soon vanish forever. Others see these forests as the economic lifeblood of dozens of rural communities whose livelihoods are built around the timber industry, The very existence of these' communities seems about to be cut short, even though the mountainsides are still clothed in what seems to many a vast inventory of old-growth timber that is destined to go unused and wasted.

Emotions run high on both sides, and there is precious little middle ground to stand on.

It is true that protecting the habitat of the northern spotted owl and other oldgrowth wildlife translates into fewer Northwest timber-industry jobs. Recent estimates of 1990s' job losses caused by old-growth wildlife protection vary dramatically-from 12,000 to 147,000 jobs. These estimates, however, are not as far apart as they appear. After eliminating the factors unrelated to the protection of owl habitat, including the effect of technological change on timber-industry employment, estimates of job losses caused by timberharvest reductions on federal lands range between 20,000 and 34,000 jobs (see Figure 1).

Since the northern spotted:owl was listed as a threatened species in 1989, there have been two comprehensive, science-based proposals to protect its habitat (primarily in the oldgrowth forests of western Washington, western Oregon, and northern California). One of the proposals was developed by the Interagency Scientific Committee (known as the "Thomas Committee"), the other by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which proposes Critical Habitat Areas or CHAs).

Since these proposals surfaced, there have been a number of economic studies assessing their potential impact on timber-harvest levels and employment in the affected regions. The best known of these studies were done by the U.S. Forest Service, the American Forest Resource Alliance (AFRA), The Wilderness Society (TWS), and the Scientific Panel on Late-Successional Forest Ecosystems (known as the "Group of Four" or "G4"). Estimates of the employment impact associated with the two habitat-protection proposals ranged from The Wilderness Society's projection of 11,858 job losses to the AFRA's projection of 147,193 job lo.sses.

The first step in making sense of such disparate conclusions is to eliminate all of the factors unrelated to the protection of spotted-owl habitat. For example, new management plans for federal lands, including national forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, are estimated to result in timber-harvest reductions that will cost 6,000 jobs according to the Forest Service or 44,000 jobs according to AFRA. Technological change, it is believed, will reduce the number of workers needed to process wood products by between 8,000 and 12,000 jobs (AFRA and TWS estimates, respectively).

The remaining differences are largely explained by two factors: differing projections of reductions in timber-harvest levels that would result from the old-growth forest-protection plans, and the method used to translate changes in timber harvesting into changes in employment.

Unlike the three other studies, The Wilderness Society's projected only direct timber-industry employment rather than total employment (direct, indirect, and induced). (The total employment equivalent of The Wilderness Society's projections can be estimated by roughly doubling them.) AFRA's study disagrees with others because it projects that Endangered Species Act restrictions will result in significant timber-harvest reductions on private as well as federal lands, causing the loss of more than 62,000 jobs in addition to the 34,000 lost due to owl protection on federal lands.

In contrast, the Forest Service, G4, and The Wilderness Society studies actually predict an increase in private timber-harvest levels in response to harvest declines and increased timber prices on federal lands.

All of the projected employment impacts are significant, but they must be viewed in the context of a long-term downward trend in the region's timber-related employment. Part of this trend is the result of increases in labor productivity, and part is due to lower timber harvests unrelated to the protection of old-growth owl habitat. These decreases, which have been forecast by forestry experts for nearly three decades, are the result of a gap between the depletion of old-growth forests and the growth of regenerated forests to harvestable sizes, as well as an expected decrease in harvest levels on federal lands.

The forest-products industry in the Pacific Northwest and the communities whose economies revolve around it are entering a difficult period of transition. It should be remembered, however, that a significant decline in employment was expected long before saving the spotted owl became an issue.

It is an understatement to say that the economic impact of this transition will be substantial. Unfortunately, the need to protect old-growth wildlife habitat will magnify these effects, shrinking the period of time local communities have to make the necessary adjustments.

Spotted-owl-habitat protection, by itself, did not precipitate this situation. But allowing the species to become extinct will not resolve it. Attempts to find a viable, long-term solution must now take a comprehensive approach to the economic transition that is taking place in the Pacific Northwest, and lay the foundation for ecologically sound regional prosperity and sustainable economic development.

The Forest Policy Center's report, "Assessing the Employment Impacts of Proposed Measures to Protect the Northern Spotted Owl," was written by AI Sample, director of the Forest Policy Center, and Dennis Le Master, head of the Department of Forestry and Natural Resouces at Purdue University. Copies are available from AFA for $5 (postage and handling included).
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Title Annotation:Research
Author:Sample, V. Alaric
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1992
Words:953
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