If you lived in the Northwest during the early 1990s, you probably remember the so-called “timber wars” when the logging industry clashed with conservationists who wanted to halt the cutting of old-growth forests. Among the arguments made by industry was that limits on cutting would result in economic hardship in rural areas. And indeed, at about the same time that limits were imposed on federal land, unemployment really did rise in some timber-dependent communities.

Things got ugly in around Cascadia, perhaps no place more so than on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula where the “jobs-versus-environment” rhetoric seemed to reach a fever pitch. But now a new academic study from Washington State University finds that the economic decline was caused more by trends in the industry than by new conservation laws:

A major fear of the 1990s spotted owl controversy—that less logging would increase unemployment and poverty—did not significantly materialize on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, according to a new analysis by a Washington State University researcher.

Annabel Kirschner, a professor in the Department of Community and Rural Sociology at Washington State University, said the peninsula’s economic well-being was already hit hard by changes in the timber industry when harvest limits in spotted owl habitat began in the 1990s. More than timber limits, the industry restructuring continued to affect poverty in the ’90s…

Kirschner said much of the “jobs versus the environment” debate was based on “export-based” economic theory, which assumes rural communities succeed and grow by exporting their natural resources. However, she said, forest industry technology had grown so sophisticated that it was providing fewer jobs and investments in local communities. Meanwhile, service industries, increasing education levels, a near doubling of commuting opportunities and retirement incomes helped mitigate the forest industry’s decline in the ’90s.

The full article is behind a paywall, but a short reader-friendly summary is available here.