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Ethics and the Environment: The Spotted Owl

The Spotted Owl Controversy

Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez

For hundreds of years, a handsome, dark-brown owl with white spots has made its home in the lush, "old-growth" forests of the Pacific Northwest. Under the multilayered canopies of these 200-year-old forests, the owl, known as the northern spotted owl, has fed off the rich plant and invertebrate life created by decaying timber and has nested in the cavities of old trunks. But the towering cedars, firs, hemlocks, and spruces which have served as the owl's habitat, also have become a primary source of timber for a multi-billion dollar logging industry. Over the last 150 years, as a result of heavy logging, these ancient forests have dwindled. Only about 10% of the forests remain, most on federally owned lands. And as the forests have dwindled, so too has the number of spotted owls. Biologists estimate that only 2,000 pairs survive today.

In 1986, a worried environmentalist group petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the owl as an "endangered species," a move that would bar the timber industry from clearing these lands. In June 1990, after years of heated negotiation and litigation between the government, environmentalists, and the timber industry, the northern spotted owl was declared a threatened species. Under this provision, timber companies are required to leave at least 40% of the old-growth forests intact within a 1.3 mile radius of any spotted owl nest or activity site, a provision that is vehemently opposed by the timber industry. Industry representatives claim that the measure will leave thousands of Northwest loggers and mill workers jobless, and insist that such protectionist policies thoughtlessly fail to take into account the dire economic consequences of preservation. Environmentalists, on the other hand, argue that society has a fundamental obligation to preserve this rare species and the wilderness it inhabits.

The controversy over the northern spotted owl follows on the heels of debates over dolphins, whales, snail darters, and desert tortoises, each raising questions concerning society's obligation to protect animals threatened by extinction. In the case of the spotted owl, we must ask whether and to what extent preserving endangered species and the wilderness they inhabit should take precedence over other considerations, such as major economic dislocations.

Weighing the Costs and Benefits
From the environmentalists' perspective, the benefits of preserving the northern spotted owl and its habitat far outweigh any of the costs. First, saving the spotted owl will save an entire ecosystem on which plants, other animals, and humans depend. The spotted owl is considered an indicator species -- a gauge of the health of the ecosystem that provides its habitat. The steady decline of this species signals the demise of other species, such as elk and flying squirrel, that inhabit these forests, and the disruption of the productive forces of nature that sustain human life. The ancient forests and the life they harbor form a complex web of interdependent relationships that play a critical role in preventing soil erosion, floods, and landslides, providing clean water for agriculture and cities, enhancing the productivity of salmon fisheries, enriching the soil with vital nutrients, and ameliorating the greenhouse effect. No amount of reforestation can replace this highly developed and diverse system which has taken millennia to evolve.

Second, society ought to preserve this species and the unique ecosystem it represents because of their aesthetic value. What kind of society would trade the magnificence of these virgin forests and the splendor of the life that inhabits them -- owl, elk, bald eagles, and mountain goats -- for paper cups and two-by-fours? To allow such a tradeoff is equivalent to destroying a great work of art that has taken centuries to create, and that will be a source of rich experience for generations of hikers, backpackers, bird-watchers, and millions of others seeking a natural world away from our teeming concrete cities.

Finally, the owl and its habitat are of immense scientific value, providing opportunities for inquiry and for increasing our understanding of this unique ecosystem and its role in our lives and in those of future generations. To date, little research has been done on these forests. To allow their demise is to permanently foreclose the possibility of exploration and the benefits generated by new discoveries. Had the obscure organism known as penicillin become extinct before its discovery, millions of human lives would have been lost. Who knows what secrets these forests may hold?

Environmentalists admit that saving the owls' habitat could cost jobs. But, they argue, these jobs will vanish no matter what. For if cutting continues at its current rate of 125,000 acres a year, the old-growth forests will be gone within thirty years and the mills forced to close anyhow. Many of the jobs in the Pacific Northwest could be saved simply by restricting the export of raw timber, a practice driven by the higher profits made through sales outside of the U.S. In 1988, nearly 4 billion board feet of raw logs were exported from Washington and Oregon. Had those logs been processed in the U.S., thousands of jobs could have been generated.

The timber industry, on the other hand, maintains that the benefits of saving the spotted owl are negligible compared to the harm that will be done. Reduced logging in the old-growth forests will harm all Americans and be particularly devastating to communities in the Pacific Northwest. These forests are a primary source of timber for most independent lumber mills in the Northwest, which account for about 65% of Western wood. Many of the saw mills are entirely dependent on old-growth cuts because their equipment can only handle trees with large dimensions. According to one report, if the volume of old growth declines, up to 28,000 jobs could be lost, leading to "increased rates of domestic disputes, divorce, acts of violence, delinquency, vandalism, suicide, alcoholism, and other problems." Nationwide, consumer prices for wood products will rise substantially. And, lumber-poor nations, such as Japan, which depend on massive amounts of timber from the U.S., will suffer.

Second, timber industry officials state that cutting the old growth is essential if present and future generations are to be provided with the wood and paper products they need. Once these trees have reached their maturity, most of their energy is spent simply maintaining themselves, rather than in new growth. It is in society's best interest to replace these static forests with healthy, young trees that will provide an adequate supply of timber.

The industry counters the environmentalists' claim that preservation measures ought to be supported because of the aesthetic, scientific, and ecological benefits that would result. Hundreds of thousands of acres of old-growth forests, they argue, have already been set aside as national parks and wilderness areas. Half of Oregon's three million acres of old growth is not being logged because it has been designated as wilderness or is unsuitable for logging. Also, logging sites are continually being reforested. Old-growth and second-growth forests provide ample opportunities for "aesthetic experiences," recreation, and biological exploration. Moreover, our desire for aesthetic experiences or the value we place on the pursuit of knowledge should not be allowed to override more basic needs of persons, such as the need for jobs or housing.

The timber industry disputes the environmentalists' call for the use of alternative sources of wood. Second-growth wood, they point out, is less strong, and is knotty and twisted. It can't be used to produce many products, such as fine furniture and musical instruments, requiring the high quality old-growth wood that is characterized by fine, straight lines and few knots. Until substitutes can be found, society has no choice but to rely on wood from old-growth forests.

Animal Rights
Preservationists also defend their case on the basis of animal rights. Every living creature, they argue, has a right to life. An owl, like any other animal, is the subject of a life that has intrinsic value. To deliberately destroy this animal's habitat violates its right to exist.

Those opposing protectionist policies claim that while humans may have a duty to prevent unnecessary harm to animals, they are not obliged to forego their own interests in order to protect the interests of animals. We slaughter cattle, pigs, and sheep to meet our needs. Why should an owl, whose habitat is a source of material needed for housing, be given special consideration?

A Duty to Preserve Rare Species
Some environmentalists counter that we also have an obligation to preserve species. A species represents a vital, non-reproducible combination of genetic processes that has evolved over millions of years. It has an integrity and potentiality of its own, manifest in its unique stages of development and its intriguing adaption to the environment around it. The rarity of some species, such as the regal spotted owl, only increases its value. We have a duty to protect such genetically unique species and to ensure their continued existence.

Opponents of protectionist policies reply that it makes no sense to say that we have a duty to preserve species because species is only a category invented by humans to group individual members. In reality, there are only individual animals that are members of a species. And, the interests of these individual animals must sometimes be overridden by the weightier interests of individual human beings.

Moreover, simply because something is rare doesn't mean it is more deserving of preservation. Leprosy is rare, but we don't value it. Rarity only intensifies the value of valuable things. Finally, it is argued, the extinction of species is a natural and normal event. A recent report on endangered species estimates that by the year 2000, 600,000 plants and animals will become extinct. Extinctions caused by the practices of humans, who are part of nature, are no more "unnatural" than extinctions caused by other predators.

As government officials, environmentalists, and industry representatives work out the details of implementing the new regulations designed to preserve the owl, we can expect the debate over the spotted owl to subside. But the ethical issues it raises will repeatedly appear as our natural resources dwindle. How we resolve these issues will depend on how we weigh the ecological, aesthetic, and scientific benefits of preservation, the rights of animals, and an obligation to preserve species, against economic interests and human needs.

Further reading

Catherine Caufield, "A Reporter at Large: The Ancient Forest," New Yorker (May 14, 1990), pp. 46-84.

Center for Philosophy and Public Policy, "The Preservation of Species: Why Should We Care?" QQ: Report from the Center for Philosophy and Public Policy, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Fall, 1985), pp. 1-5.

Alastair S. Gunn, "Preservng Rare Species," in Tom Regan, ed., Earthbound: New Introductory Essays in the Environment (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), pp. 289-335.

Ted Gup, "Owl vs. Man," Time (June 25, 1990), pp. 56-62.

This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 4, N. 1 Spring 1991


November 13, 2015