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.
I would be very skeptical about this study. In the first place, restrictions on timber harvest due to spotted owls began in the early ’80’s. Typically, forests such as the Klamath and Shasta-Trinity managed to offer the same quantity, but the quality was so low that a large percentage of sales went unpurchased during the mid 80’s. Latinos could increase unemployment if that is all you measure, but they would not reduce employment in the timber industry. They might actually increase employment if they work cheaper. I remember a catskinner loaned to the Forest Service for fire duty by Sierra Pacific. He was good, but I didn’t realize until after I had worked a couple of hours with him that he couldn’t speak English. Automation reduced the jobs per million board feet, but automation was caused by the shift to small diameter trees, which was accellerated by old growth protection.