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Endangered Species and Environmental Leverage


Environmental groups are going to an old playbook in order to stop the Keystone XL pipeline: find an endangered species and sue the government to stop development. The classic example of this was environmentalists using the northern spotted owl to halt old-growth logging on federal forests in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Openly admitting that the owl represented the forest and they were looking for anything to save these last stands of timber, environmentalists saw the owl as manna from Heaven.

Today, environmentalists are pointing to the American burying beetle as an excellent hope to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. This endangered beetle (which is quite beautiful) seems to require undisturbed grassland to survive, which is awfully rare in the Great Plains. I say “seems” because in truth little is known about this animal except their numbers are in decline and the pipeline will make it worse.

In the Northwest, the spotted owl strategy was extremely effective, at least in the short term. Once those trees were gone, they were gone forever. And without using every lever of power, most of those trees would be gone today. On the other hand, the strategy’s downside was the long-term distrust between working-class people and environmentalists. Even if the timber industry was going away because of resource depletion, mechanization, and globalization, the idea that environmentalists cared more about owls than people became a powerful political point that allowed the timber industry to divert attention from its own ecologically and economically destructive practices.

In addition, the northern spotted owl’s decline in the face of the barred owl’s invasion of its territory has undermined the long-term viability of the strategy. If the spotted owl can’t be saved, why not reopen the forests to logging? This is certainly the hope of many rural Oregonians and it has put the environmental movement and federal biologists on the defensive, forcing them to do things they abhor like shooting barred owls.

That’s why I’m unsure of following this strategy in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline. The owl at least had the benefit of some charisma. A burying beetle is going make it even easier for the pipeline’s proponents to talk about environmentalists as a bunch of lunatics who do not care about people. The labor movement itself is deeply split on supporting the pipeline, with some unions liking the construction jobs it would create and others seeing the long-term environmental damage it would cause as not being worth it. So there is a lot of room for environmentalists to make alliances with labor and promote green building as an economically and environmentally sustainable way to live.

On the other hand, forcing the government to follow its own environmental laws and regulations is a really effective strategy to stop damaging development and to protect species in the short-term. It’s hard for me to tell environmentalists to abandon these ideas, even with the longer-term problems we are seeing in the Pacific Northwest. In the end, I’m really glad those forests were saved.

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  • rm

    Can’t we have all strategies at once? I can just hear the conservative media machine now — burying beetles will be the new snail darter (remember them?) — but then, the conservative media machine will do what it does in any case, and there are the actual merits of the actual case and the actual realities of environmental damage.

    But I am convinced of your point that this will be a rhetorical cudgel. Look at the coal industry’s power in Kentucky and West Virginia. All the chickens are very, very proud of the jobs that KFC provides in the chicken coop, and chicken politicians of both parties are eager to show their loyalty to the industry. The oil industry has that kind of pull in Louisiana, I’ve been led to understand. This is a case like that.

    I think you’re saying that environmentalists are the Lorax — always scolding and abusing the Onceler instead of appealing to his love of the Truffula trees. That’s definitely a problem. But the answer isn’t to stop working in the courts, it’s to have a smart public campaign that is about people and our long-term interests, and not about burying beetles.

    • Lee

      rm, people need the jobs that are going to be provided by the pipeline. Many environmentalists never seem to understand this. Environmentalism is a good thing but its primary importance should be ensuring that the earth is livable for humans. More than a few environmentalists seem to think that enviornmentalism should be at human expense. They do not craft their policies to ensure that humans aren’t negatively impacted by them.

      • I don’t think this is really true anymore, at least among mainstream groups. The use of the beetle is something they may feel they have to do, but most are well aware of the need for jobs. You have a ton of interest in promoting green jobs. The Keystone XL pipeline does create construction jobs in the short-term, but in the long-term it is an environmental disaster that will be bad for the economy and nature and human lives.

        • Josh G.

          The Keystone XL pipeline does create construction jobs in the short-term, but in the long-term it is an environmental disaster that will be bad for the economy and nature and human lives.

          As Keynes noted, in the long run we are all dead.

      • Bill Murray

        Lee, while it’s true people need jobs, they do not specifically need the jobs related to the pipeline. Of course since the Republicans won’t vote for any other kind of job creation except for those that piss off liberals, maybe this is the best possible.

        On the third hand, the initial phase seems to go through ND, SD and NE which are the three lowest unemployment states in the US. OK ans KS also have low unemployment, MO, MT and TX are middle of the pack. Only IL has high unemployment. Also, there are predictions that the pipeline would overall reduce employment in the US

      • rm

        Lee, if some environmentalists fit your descriptions, then they should change their ways, but you do not seem to have read the post or my comment, both of which say this already, although they also make other points, which may have been confusing for you. Not all environmentalists are so clueless today, and we should try to be the not-clueless kind.

        The case against the coal industry, the oil industry, and this pipeline has everything to do with poverty and jobs. It’s hard to fit on a bumper sticker like “Coal Keeps the Lights On” or “Friends of Coal,” which is what I see around these parts. But those slogans are lies. These industries do not create long-term jobs or long-term livable communities. If they created short-term jobs without doing other massive damage, that would be okay, but they do destroy the communities that are most devoted to them.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    I dunno; I grew up in a small timber town in Oregon and was always worried growing up that the local Boise Cascade mill would close down (which is a problem when your dad works there). Turns out it did eventually close down, but after I had moved out and my dad retired.

    I guess…when you personally have interests in a fight, environmental ideals sorta get thrown out the door.

  • What a gorgeous photo of a gorgeous insect that is.

  • Lee

    The issue comes down to I think one of class. Many environmentalists are not from working class backgrounds. Many come from middle to upper class backgrounds. This makes them somewhat to very impervious to the needs and wants of the working class. Especially since they view their cause as more important than the cause of labor movement.

    This comes up a lot in American politics, there always seems to be something of a conflcit between the working class/economic left and the non-economic leftist groups. Many people in the non-economic leftist groups aren’t from working class backgrounds and tend to be more or less clueless when it comes to being sensitive to workign class issues. The fact that a lot of white working class people are often treated as being part of the bad guys rather than good guys is not helpful.

    • Murc

      The fact that a lot of white working class people are often treated as being part of the bad guys rather than good guys is not helpful.

      On the one hand, this is largely true.

      On the other hand, after the left spent half a century working very hard on behalf of the working class (and the benefits of that work accrued very heavily to the white working class specifically) said working class ran to vote for Republicans as fast as their feet would carry them the second that someone said “Blacks! Gays! Hippies! BOO!” to them.

      • LeeEsq

        This isn’t quite accurate. Murc, you are treating the Left and the Working Class as two separate entities but for much of the 19th and 20th century, most leftist figures were either working class or sympathetic to the working class. It also wasn’t really the white working class that abandoned the Democratic Party so much as it was the white lower-middle class. Most lower income still vote Democratic. That isn’t the same as voting left but this is America.

  • skidmarx

    If there is one thing we can infer about God, it is that he has an inordinate fondness for beetles.
    [Though the reasoning that there are a lot of them might not help the argument that a particular species needs saving]

  • Ed

    Even if the timber industry was going away because of resource depletion, mechanization, and globalization,

    Well, yes. No doubt the environmentalists could have been more diplomatic, but there’s little one can do with angry and fearful people determined to personalize a dilemma that involves forces greater than dirty owl-loving hippies, especially when such people are encouraged by powerful interests exploiting their concerns for their own purposes.

    The practice of killing one species to protect another isn’t unprecedented. Shooting Arctic foxes to protect shorebirds, shooting coyotes to protect pygmy rabbits, etc. In this case I agree that killing barred owls is unlikely to provide a long term solution. Don’t feel too sad for them, though. They’re big bullies. There’s nothing wrong in principle with defending the little guy who can’t defend himself, even if we’re talking owls.

  • Zoltar the Magnificent

    I gotta say, as far as environmentalists being against working timber industry guys, that old growth was pretty well gone by the time logging stopped anyway, at least in the coastal PNW. Most everything you see around Western Oregon/Washington is second growth. And weren’t the sawmill jobs moving to Asia at that point anyway? The only timber company I’m at all familiar with (Port Blakely) sends practically all their logs overseas (and since they run 80-90 year rotations, it’s hard for them to get the logs sawn here anyway these days–most all of the mill are set up for pathetically small short-rotation logs).

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