Spotted owl habitat plan would decimate rural communities

2012-04-06 Ashley Bach

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its preliminary habitat designation for the spotted owl plan, timber leaders were strongly opposed. The Fish and Wildlife Service said it planned to more than double the amount of habitat set aside for the owl, removing millions of acres of forestland from any potential harvest and also including private forests for the first time.

Turns out, timber leaders had even more reason to oppose the habitat designation. Forest2Market recently analyzed the impact that the Fish and Wildlife’s proposed habitat would have on the ground if approved. The numbers are devastating.

  • The amount of “critical habitat” for the owl across Washington, Oregon and California would leap from 5.3 million acres to 14 million acres.
  • Of this 14 million acres, 1.3 million acres would be private forestland. Private land has never been part of any official federal spotted owl habitat.

The Forest2Market analysis then zooms in on Washington to better demonstrate the real-world impact of the federal plan.

  • 149,926 acres of private forestland in Washington would be designated as critical owl habitat for the first time.

Taking this private forestland out of productivity in Washington would lead to the loss of:

  • 750 forestry jobs, including $35 million of wages a year
  • 2,250 total jobs, including $94.6 million of wages a year
  • $4.2 million in taxes and fees by the state and rural timber-producing counties

Is it any wonder timber leaders in all three states are so worried about what the federal government is proposing?

The Forest2Market analyst, Suzanne Hearn, writes that rural Washington residents would bear an unjust share of the cost for setting aside habitat for the spotted owl.

In my opinion, this is a very high price to pay for the protection of a single species in a single state. If private land not under conservation agreement is included in the final plan, as many as 2,250 American citizens in Washington State could lose their jobs.  These jobs are predominately created by small enterprises in rural communities, where few if any alternative employment opportunities exist. According to the United States Census Bureau, these communities already have poverty rates higher than the national average. Further encumbrances on the harvest of renewable forest resources will affect most directly the communities where unemployment is the principal cause of poverty.

While I won’t argue the merits of the Endangered Species act of 1973, I do take exception to the fact that as a society we have made provisions for endangered species but no provision to share the cost of doing so. The $94.6 million in lost wages, which will be felt most dramatically in rural counties in Washington State, will not be shared by the federal government or the 313,256,970 citizens of the United States in whose name this regulatory action is being taken. Rather it will be paid for by a relatively few private citizens who are unlucky enough to own forestland in critical spotted owl habitat zones.

Several hundred American citizens will suddenly own land that has no value.  From the landholders perspective, this constitutes a perverse kind of eminent domain; They will still own their land and bear all the risk and liability related to it, but for all intents and purposes that land will be worthless as a source of income.

One sign of hope is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not finalized the habitat designation yet. The agency is taking public comment on the designation until June 6. As Hearn points out, the Fish and Wildlife Service could decide to leave some or all of the private forestland out of the final plan.

But that won’t happen unless the federal agency receives feedback about why the preliminary habitat plan doesn’t work. Go here to leave a comment and tell U.S. Fish and Wildlife why its plan hurts rural communities.