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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Todd Myers: Time to stop listening to those environmental groups who cry wolf

By Todd Myers Washington Policy Center

Nearly everyone knows the story of the boy who cried wolf. The moral of the story is that if you lie repeatedly, people stop believing you.

In the Northwest, there are some environmental activists who have been crying wolf for years, saying things that are wildly inaccurate about forests and salmon. The price for their repeated dishonesty is paid by the environment, as time and resources are wasted on false alarms.

Take for example a recent claim by the Washington Environmental Council (WEC) and National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Just weeks ago, the groups breathlessly claimed the Snake River spring chinook runs could be extinct in five years, saying this was “not hyperbole.”

Even as they wrote those words, spring chinook were returning in significantly higher numbers. This year’s run that concluded on June 17 was 27% larger than last year, and 55% larger than 2019. The numbers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and University of Washington were available to anyone who cared to look. They didn’t care.

This isn’t the first time such claims have been made. In 1999, environmental groups bought an ad in The New York Times claiming Snake River salmon would be gone by 2017. They weren’t. Rather than learning the lesson from crying wolf, environmental groups continue to repeat these false claims.

They will now explain away their blunder, claiming that only wild fish, not hatchery salmon, count. This is contradicted by their own arguments. They lament the loss of sport fishing and the impact on tourism. But sport fishers cannot keep wild salmon. They can only keep hatchery salmon. Activists cannot argue that only wild salmon matter while making arguments that rely on hatchery fish.

They are not the only ones making inconsistent and inaccurate claims.

The Kettle Range Conservation Group is suing to stop forest health treatments in the national forest near the Colville Indian Reservation. The group’s claims most of the treatments, “will be clearcut, or have just a couple of trees left standing per acre.” This is nonsense.

The Sanpoil forest health project was requested in 2014 by the Colville Confederated Tribes, who noted that “these areas are in desperate need of restoration,” because the forests “are infested with disease and are now vulnerable to catastrophic fire events” that threaten to spread into reservation forests.

Despite the claim that forests would be clearcut, the Forest Service’s plan reduces the risk of fire by, “thinning small trees, reducing fuel loads and ladder fuels; increasing fire breaks through landscape heterogeneity and employing fire as a management tool; and establishing a low-fuels buffer on the northern boundary of the Colville Indian Reservation.”

Making false claims is more irresponsible when the result is to prevent efforts that can return forests to a more natural, healthy and fire-resistant condition.

The Spokane-based Lands Council made similarly false claims this year, saying the Trump administration allowed “large clear-cuts,” that were done “without looking into the environmental impacts.” Not only have there not been “large clear-cuts,” but the harvests were proposed during the Obama administration, and had a long and transparent public environmental process. The Lands Council’s claim is completely invented.

There are many honest disagreements about environmental policy. Environmental science can be uncertain, and people have sincere differences about values and levels of risk. People may worry more about the risk of climate change than the impact from mining materials to make car batteries. Those policy disagreements may be controversial, but they are honest.

Too many environmental groups in our region, however, are like the boy who cried wolf – they hope to get a reaction by making false claims and drawing attention to themselves. It is time to hold these groups accountable for their repeated dishonesty. The longer we play the game, falling for their hyperbole, the more difficult it becomes to focus environmental restoration where it is needed most.

Todd Myers is the director of the Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Tri-Cities, Olympia and Seattle.

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