Spotted Owl Fallout?

Last week, after attending the NFMA roundtable in DC, my 12-year-old daughter McKenzie and I had dinner with Dan Sarewitz, his wife Erica Rosenberg and their 10-year-old son Jonah. Erica and I have known each other since her tenure on the House Natural Resources Committee staff where she helped shepherd the first iteration of Secure Rural Schools through Congress. Jonah and I have played ping pong a couple of times — he’ll be really good some day!

Although I have read several of Dan’s writings on science policy, this was our first meeting (actually, we met the day before dinner on Connecticut Avenue as McKenzie and I walked to the metro after visiting the national zoo — small world, indeed).

Dan asked me a question that has defied easy analysis for twenty years. Did winning the spotted owl lawsuits do more harm than good? I invite your thoughts. I’ll save mine for the next post.

8 thoughts on “Spotted Owl Fallout?”

  1. To the extent ESA’s after-the-fact firewall is all that’s available to work with– it’s better than nothing — but it definitely demonstrates a much larger systemic failure.

    ESA should never have had to have been invoked in the first place.

    But the debacle could lead to a better understanding of how to prevent further threatened and endangered species. The solution can only be found by being clear about the problem, that is, differentiating causes from effects is essential to finding solutions.

    The trend is clear here though: instead of addressing the causes of systemic failure, many agency/academic spotlights are focused on the effects such as management of species to the edge of extinction and the laws which must then be invoked.

    More often than not, bureaucrats and many academics affiliated with libertarian and neoliberal funding also decry ESA (along with NEPA and NFMA) as the problem which must be changed.

    Legislation designed to protect the environment, like democracy, has never been a perfect nor an easy process, because there will always be those who need to control or exploit the commons, elevating self-interest over the common good. That’s why constant claims of the end of the “war in the woods” are so transparently facile.

    That’s why also, that I’m concerned about a “You broke it, now you fix it.” approach to addressing the problem, especially because that’s precisely the model of Disaster Capitalism.

    At the center of this systemic failure is the simple fact that there is no personal or professional accountability to perpetrators who repeatedly break these laws. Until then, the laws will most certainly be broken, over and over and over.

    It’s a sure bet.

  2. Andy- As you know, I am a big fan of Dan Sarewitz.

    Here is a link to a blog post where I asked a version of the same question. I would argue that it had some success at reducing timber harvesting, but may well have been done in a less disruptive manner, potentially more aware of the social consequences of the changes, and with an attempt to mitigate those social impacts.

    For those of you who aren’t familiar with Dan’s work. Here is a recent blog post with some quotes and links..

    Politics isn’t about maximizing rationality, it’s about finding compromises that enough people can live with to allow society to take steps in the right direction. Contrary to all our modern instincts, then, political progress on climate change requires not more scientific input into politics, but less. Value disputes that are hidden behind the scientific claims and counterclaims need to be flushed out and brought into the sunlight of democratic deliberation. Until that happens, the political system will remain in gridlock, and everyone will be convinced that they are on the side of truth.

    So, coincidentally, I happened to be at a planning rule public meeting last night and some nice people from Defenders of Wildlife shared with me their buttons (“Give our forests the bear essentials”), which I of course interpreted literally and thought they were fans of your KISS alternative. Not so!

    From a handout given out by Defenders, Colorado Environmental Coalition and Colorado Wild, they state that the regulations must:

    “Require that plans and projects conform to the best available science at all levels of national forest planning “.

    Considering is one thing, conforming sounds like we are mixing empirical and normative knowledge claims. I wonder what Dan would have to say about that? Perhaps climate policy should “conform to” the best available science?

  3. Your use of “normative”, (to the extent that it means “relating to an ideal standard or model”), is questionable. In this case, the standard described by the American norm these days is not doing well at all, nor are many other norms. There are many reasons for this, but conforming to science is not at the center of the problem.

    My vote calls into question what constitutes “normative”, especially when the norm is reliably self-destructive often because of the absence of the application of empirical knowledge.

    For instance, had energy needs and nuclear normatives conformed to empirical knowledge, we would not be witnessing Fukushima becoming our next Chernobyl.

    The same goes for Climate Change. While it is arguable that “more science” will not predictably result in affecting the normative — that does not rule out the necessity to be informed by science — it merely illustrates what to expect when the normative does not conform to empirical imperatives.

    The facade of democracy being invoked by Dan is indisputably, a corporatocracy wielding an extremely powerful and sophisticated media machine.

    That this overriding grip on all aspects of our culture and what constitutes the normative, produces spotted owl, Fukushima, and climate change debacles, does not negate the necessity for the application of science to help solve these debacles.

  4. David, I am totally OK with your concept of “informed by science”. Of course! What I was questioning is the use of the term “conform to.”

    Your nuclear example is a good one. Nuclear is better than oil and gas and coal for climate change but can have (perhaps more) serious negative impacts when things go wrong. Coal is cheap but “dirty” and natural gas is better for the environment in terms of climate change but requires drilling, which impacts wildlife and has potentially other impacts during fracking. Underground coal mining may have the least impacts to the surface..

    So the science is useful and should inform our decisions, but does not tell us, for example, “how we should pursue energy choices in moving from the present to a decarbonized energy future.”

    Further, not all scientific information out there is of high quality. Many factors interfere with quality but the quality needs to be taken into account whenever you try to relate science to policy.

    My use of the term “normative” goes back to Chapter 1 “an introduction to ethical theory” from the Environmental Ethics and Policy Book: Philosophy, Ecology, Economics by VanDeVeer and Pierce. Here is a link to the book on Amazon. I recommend this to anyone trained in the sciences; it parses out the difference between normative and empirical knowledge claims. This is important because when scientists (like me) have not had that kind of training we may be fairly insensitive to acknowledging that it is easy to attach a normative overlay to many of our empirical findings, and then claim that “science tells us to..”

  5. The owl protections were a necessary evil, to “change the culture” of the Forest Service from “cornfield management” of our forests. At the time, the best of what nesting habitat that was left was targeted by Big Timber. The days of clearcutting and highgrading had to end. However, once that had been largely accomplished, we’ve seen other hazards that cannot easily be addressed, due to inflexible rules and old “bayonet wounds”. There are happy mediums but, is either side “progressive” enough to accept them?

    The California Spotted Owl might possibly have more protections that the northern variety, although the bird is not listed. The self-imposed owl rules could use an update, to reflect the “best available science”, IMHO.

  6. Sharon,
    It seems you’re misunderstanding my point, which began with “but conforming to science is not at the center of the problem.” (It was the failure to conform to science which is at the center of these problems.)

    Short of being forced to order the book, and in order to continue this dialogue, perhaps you could parse for us why the following quote from IPCC AR4, cannot be used, in your words, to show “how we should pursue energy choices in moving from the present to a decarbonized energy future.”?(But I don’t think anyone expects a decarbonized energy future– we just need to dramatically lower carbon emissions.)

    “An initial 350 ppm CO2 target may be achievable by phasing out coal use except where CO2 is captured and adopting agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon.”

    Could you provide your concerns around why we should not be conforming to the unprecedented international scientific consensus this statement represents?

    Lastly, more to my point of why ESA’s firewall was invoked, after persistent scientific warnings of expected (!) declines of oldgrowth dependent species, it seems it was the agency failure to conform to scientist’s concerns around massive removals of habitat and unsustainable timber harvest which resulted in the spotted owl debacle.

    Wasn’t it?

  7. Just last night, I went outside to try taking pictures of the ample snowfall. Very close by was a pair of California Spotted Owls, hooting their location calls at each other through the falling snow and fading twilight. If owls inhabit the forests near humans, does the bird’s presence exclude thinning projects? The adjacent land is Forest Service, and could be marginal nesting habitat. It IS very clear that it is very good foraging habitat, as there has been several other visits in the last few years. Finding a nest means locking up about 6000 acres in an “owl circle”. Some reform is needed but, I see no reason to re-invent the wheel, here.

  8. There is no question that it was necessary to bring in an independent branch of government to stop the liquidation of the old growth forests. If the owl suits had been lost, then the problem would have been forced upon the political branches and the would certainly have botched it. The “representative” branches of govt (as currently configured) are far too beholden to monied interests. For now, the courts are still a necessary part of the process of reaching sane natural resource decisions.


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