Total Employment Across NSO States vs. Non-NSO States

NSO=Northern Spotted Owl. Industry predicted job losses are a graphical depiction of the 130,000 jobs industry predicted would be lost following the listing of the northern spotted owl but giving no timeline of when those job losses would occur.
Source: Labor Market Impacts of Land Protection: The Northern Spotted Owl, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, June 2021

The Biden administration laid out this year its plan to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s land and waters by 2030. It’s a vision echoed by the G7 leaders and shared by sixty countries, and its need is backed by science: Two international panels emphasized this year that climate change and biodiversity loss are intertwined, first-order threats. When animals and plant species are dying out at alarming rates—more than 1 million species now face a risk of extinction—scientists warn it could lead to a ‘ghastly future.’

The history of environmental protection is one marked by protests, usually from affected industries. The 1973 Endangered Species Act is no different; plagued by an age-old tension between conservationists and industry, with industry setting up a hard choice between saving wildlife or jobs. The “poster species” behind the tension has, for more than three decades, been the northern spotted owl. The owl lives in roughly 200-year-old forests in the Pacific Northwest and northern California: logging country. After decades of logging led to a dwindling owl population, the owl was designated as threatened in 1990. Soon after, in 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set aside 6.9 million acres of the old forests as protected critical habitats, which prohibited logging in 40 percent of the industry’s resource base. The logging industry claimed this would result in as many as 130,000 job losses.

To determine whether the industry’s claims had come true, Harris Public Policy’s Eyal Frank and his coauthor compared timber employment in affected counties to similar counties in unaffected surrounding areas, as well as nationally. Relative to the national level, they found that timber employment dropped about 28 percent; 14 percent relative to regional employment in the sector.  This reflects as many as 32,000 timber job losses, compared to the 130,000 jobs predicted by the industry.

To put those job losses into context, most of those laid off had worked in the logging and timber mills specific to the old forests. Once they are cut, new growth forests do not sustain the same number and types of jobs. If the logging had continued unchecked, the old forests would have been gone by 2000, or 2050 at the latest. So the owl protections shifted forward by a decade or so job losses that were inevitable.

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