Loss of timber jobs in the Pacific Northwest stems from overcutting rather than from measures to protect old-growth timber and the northern spotted owl, according to newly presented research.
In fact, the biggest decline in timber employment occurred between 1947 and 1964 as logging became increasingly mechanized and timber harvests rose without much environmental restriction, said Bill Freudenburg, a University of Wisconsin sociologist and former Washington State University professor.
“We found no statistically believable evidence of a ‘spotted owl’ effect on logging jobs,” Freudenburg said Friday.
Blaming owls for job losses raises the question of “how those birds could have started costing loggers their jobs more than 40 years before the species came under the protection of the Endangered Species Act,” he said.
“Job losses may ultimately have resulted not from excessive environmental protection efforts of the past several years but from insufficient environmental protection over the past century or more,” he concluded.
Freudenburg’s findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and are being published in the journal Sociological Perspectives.
To trace the impact of environmental regulations on logging companies and lumber mills in the region, he examined employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, log export figures compiled by the U.S. Forest Service and dozens of studies on logging and environmental regulation.
He also focused on three key dates: passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, adoption of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 and listing of the spotted owl as a threatened species in 1989.
Nearly 20,000 jobs have been lost in Washington and Oregon since 1989, slightly more than in the preceding decade and a half or so.
Timber jobs in the United States fell from 572,000 in 1947 to 342,000 in 1964. That means by the time the Wilderness Act was in place, much of the Northwest’s forests were already gone, Freudenburg said.
In Oregon, a third of the large sawmills and 85 percent of the smaller mills in Oregon were closed between 1948 and 1962. In the same period, logging employment declined by about 18,000 jobs a year, including 2,855 in Washington and Oregon. The nationwide average has fallen to about 1,440 since 1964.
“Statistics showed that by the early 1960s in the Pacific Northwest, we’d chopped down all the big old trees and then shut down the mills that processed those big old trees,” Freudenburg said. “The process had run its course before the first ‘job-killing’ environmental laws were passed.”
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