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Conservative Lies about the Spotted Owl

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9781107125490

Bill Clinton enacted the Northwest Forest Plan in 1993. This marked the logical ending point for the Northwest Timber Wars between environmentalists and the timber industry that had riven the region for the previous 20 years. This closed most national forest land with old-growth timber to logging in order to save this sensitive species from extinction and to save the last ancient forests. During this whole period, the timber industry claimed protecting the owls would decimate timber employment. Meanwhile, employers themselves were destroying timber employment through a combination of automation, overharvesting and resultant need to find new forests to exploit, and log export policy that created fast profits by selling unprocessed logs to Japan instead of paying American workers to process the wood before exporting it. Long before 1993, timber employment plummeted. In 1978, the timber industry employed 136,000 people in Oregon and Washington. Four years later, that number declined to 95,000. Very little of that was from environmental protection. Weyerhaeuser invested $400 million to modernize its mills in Everett and reduced its work force from 900 to 500. The number of workers needed to produce one million board feet of lumber fell by approximately twenty percent, from 9.1 between 1976 and 1982 to 7.4 between 1982 and 1991. By 1970, over 2.5 billion board feet of timber was exported from west coast ports, a number up 16.6 percent from the previous year. 96.2 percent of that timber went to Japan. Exports exploded during the Reagan years, peaking in 1989 at 1.944 billion board feet of timber, twice their peak during the Carter administration. Between 1979 and 1989, lumber production in the Northwest increased by 11 percent while employment dropped by 24,500 jobs. All of this information comes from my book Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests, which amazingly is actually on sale for $25 on Amazon right now. Considering it is usually listed at $100, buy it now!

But for loggers facing the end of a work tradition, it became easier to blame greens than their own employers or complex export policy. Companies successfully shifted blame to a minor cause of unemployment. Between 1983 and 1988, average timber employment in Oregon and Washington was 105,000. By 1994, it was still 91,000, even though old-growth logging had fallen to near zero because of the spotted owl lawsuits. Yet these lies about why jobs disappeared remain tremendously powerful in conservative communities, including the logging towns decimated by corporate and political choices about forest policy in the second half of the twentieth century. If you want to read the lies told by conservatives about these issues, you can read this. I won’t embed any of it because it’s garbage, but the only facts provided are the spurious claims of a CEO. But these arguments make me really angry because they are outright lies that cover up corporate malfeasance and greed.

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  • Scott P.

    In 1978, the timber industry employed 136,000 people in Oregon and Washington. Four years later, that number declined to 95,000.

    Not sure about those endpoints. There was a massive recession in 1981. A bigger picture showing the overall trendline would be better.

  • Cheerful

    At some point as a teenager I noticed that in most of the forests I saw in Washington the trees were not all that big, but there were enormous stumps scattered throughout, and that the whole thing was really the graveyard of the old forest that used to be there.

    Of course you can find some of those trees if you look at the roofs of some of the older buildings in Seattle and San Francisco, with magnificent cross beams made from single trees.

    For so long so many people could not look at a forest and see anything but money.

  • The Pale Scot

    IIRC, Koch Industries led a hostile takeover of Georgia/Pacific. The debt incurred from borrowing the 100s of millions to payoff the opposing factions necessitated G/P clearcutting their holdings and shipping the logs to Japan.

    This was feature, G/P had billions in held assets on it’s books consisting of managed forests that were assumed to be future products. The Koch’s saw cash sitting on the sidelines and went and liquidated it at wholesale prices.

    It’s as if the Saud family pumped their oil reserves dry using methods that would destroy the strata and reduce the total output, but convert all the held assets to cash and then move to Switzerland.

    • Yep. And they weren’t the only company doing this sort of thing during the 80s and 90s. The Headwaters Campaign, arguably the last major battle in the ancient forest campaigns (along with Warner Creek in Oregon) was about a similar attempt in some of the last ancient redwood forests.

      • Francis

        I was a mid-level associate at the law firm that represented Pacific Lumber Company / MAXXAM and worked extensively on this matter. All that I can say is that the governments (Dept of Interior for the feds and Resources Dept for the State of California) represented themselves very very well.

    • Anna in PDX

      I remember this but thought the company in question was MAXXAM.

      • Maxxam was the Headwaters.

        • TroubleMaker13

          Yes. I remember this well because I was a student at Humboldt State University at around that time. MAXXAM was run by a junk bond king named Charles Hurwitz. He built it up from I think a company that made sewing patterns through a series of hostile takeovers of other companies. Pacific Lumber was based in Scotia, CA, started out I think as a family-run business and were known for their stewardship and sustainable yield forestry. Since they held a lot of old-growth Douglas Fir and Redwood, their holdings were very valuable, but their relatively low yield made them cash-poor and ripe for hostile takeover. In swooped Hurwitz and MAXXAM who snatched it up and started liquidating all of that timber.

          Really sad story.

          • Anna in PDX

            My dad was an Earth Firster and I went to my first demo after the Earth First Round River Rendezvous in 1988. The action was in southern Oregon for the headwaters campaign and the dark haired actress from Baywatch was there. One of the most surreal times in my life.

            • Francis

              Alexandra Paul, a high-school classmate. Never did run into her through my years on working on the SYP (Sustained Yield Plan) / HCP (Habitat Conservation Plan) and related documents for the MAXXAM Headwaters deal.

              • Anna in PDX

                She was sort of a special guest at the protest. Sorry that I had completely forgotten her name. She was very nice.

                Eta: so she was from the area? Humboldt County?

          • Hob

            He built it up from I think a company that made sewing patterns

            I would love to see a history of predatory conglomerates that had these sorts of humble practical beginnings. Whoever wrote the online promotional material for the science fiction movie District 9 had a better-than-Hollywood-average grasp of such things, since they described the evil military contractor “Multinational United” as having started out in the business of refrigerator parts or something like that.

    • guthrie

      I thought the Saud family were doing that already, just hadn’t reached the moving to Switzerland bit yet.

      • Judas Peckerwood

        Maybe not Switzerland in particular, but you can’t turn over a rock in any major city that offers easy access to prostitutes and cocaine without finding a Saudi princeling underneath.

  • DrDick

    During that period, a number of timber companies, especially Georgia Pacific also expanded their operations in SE Oklahoma and western Arkansas, to take advantage of the faster growing southern pine. That is also the time frame when SE Asian timber production started taking off.

    • TroubleMaker13

      Yeah, I remember this too. As I recall, a lot of that southern pine was used for pulp and that expansion helped drive down the price which was definitely felt in my part of the Northwest. There were several pulp mills in Eureka that were significant employers in Humboldt Co. and they couldn’t survive the price crash. When the mills closed down, that just added to the employment pressure and timber worker resentment.

    • DrDick

      On reflection, it is Weyerhaeuser, not Georgia Pacific that bought up SE Oklahoma. Not sure why I made that mistake, other than I am sick and the brain is not functioning properly.

  • dr. hilarius

    The price just shot up to $41.60! Damn you, Busytown worm Jeff Bezos!

    And the Kindle version is $80??!!! I want to read the book but DAMN! I need an $80 kindle book like I need ketchup on my hamburger!!!!

    • I think people bought 2 copies. Must have been an automatic thing. Christ.

      I’m really happy to have published with Cambridge and there will be a paperback next year, but it is frustrating that no one can read it yet.

    • Anna in PDX

      Just did an interlibrary loan request after a similar search. Sigh, probably it will take months to get to me.

      • Sigh.

        • Anna in PDX

          I will end up buying it for sure, just waiting for the paperback, but I really do want to read it!

          • My editor claims that she is on my side here, but it’s a matter of convincing the powers that be at Cambridge to make it happen. Luckily, the paperback is guaranteed in the contract. Of course it will probably still be $28 or so, although that will be a list price and will usually be available for less.

            • Linnaeus

              $28 isn’t so bad. I’d pay that.

      • Linnaeus

        My university library has two copies: one circulating, one in special collections. The circulating one is checked out, but I can recall it. I’ll wait to see if it gets returned first.

      • Hob

        Hoping to get it through the SF library system, but they only have two copies circulating.

    • N__B

      Jeebus. B&N has it $95, marked down from $99.

      Next time I get a discount coupon, I guess.

  • Nobdy

    Job loss through automation and corporate profit seeking is the most natural and beautiful thing in the world. We do not blame the bear for eating a salmon, we cannot blame a corporation for seeking more profits by cutting jobs.

    Job loss due to environmental protections, on the other hand, are a grotesque crime against capitalist nature. It is like destroying salmon by pumping industrial pollutants into their stream. An unconscionable disruption of nature and our shared heritage for the benefit of the few (environmentalists.)

    Note: This is, pretty much, the conservative position. It is what tens of millions of people apparently uniroinically believe.

    • Chaz

      That was hilarious.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    My brother was fortunate, in that he went from working as a grunt at a paper mill, to getting his millwright journeyman’s license, so he has some transferable skills. Alas, he still works at paper mills, which involve rather long commutes, and his current company is going through some turmoil, and might be bought out. Even with good paychecks, its not a good idea to be tied to an extractive industry (something which my hometown never figured out).

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