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Tag: "environment"

Santa Barbara Oil Spills, Then and Now

[ 3 ] May 20, 2015 |

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In 1969, the beaches of Santa Barbara, California were inundated with oil from a nearby spill. This event galvanized environmentalists both locally and around the nation. I use the Santa Barbara oil spill to help set up Out of Sight, which is coming out officially in 13 days. So buy your copies now. Anyway, an excerpt:

Fifty-eight years later, in 1969, public outrage over corporate behavior again revolved around disturbing images that flashed before Americans’ eyes. Two events that year changed Americans’ views on how industry should treat the environment. First, on January 28, the largest oil spill to that point in American history took place off the coast of Santa Barbara, California when a well blew out on an oil platform owned by Union Oil. Up to 100,000 barrels spilled. People watching their evening news saw sea lions and birds covered in oil, dead fish and marine wildlife, and a paradise spoiled.

The oil industry had long played a controversial role in southern California. As the state became known for its beaches, tourists and developers protested the oil industry’s presence in that beautiful part of the country. Beachgoers in the 1920s found themselves between the picturesque Pacific and a sea of oil derricks. Local residents, led by oil workers’ unions, demanded the industry maintain the character of their towns and beaches. The oil workers unions held beach clean-ups, advocated for drilling limits, and wanted more their towns than the filth of oil pollution. By the 1960s, much of the production had moved offshore, but oil derricks and refineries remained a major feature of the southern California landscape.

When the spill took place, the people of Santa Barbara and southern California responded quickly. An organization named Get Oil Out (GOO) quickly developed. Led by Santa Barbara resident Bud Bottoms, GOO urged people to cut back on driving and boycott gas stations that received fuel from Union Oil. It lobbied to ban all oil drilling off of California and succeeded in enacting new regulations when drilling did resume. Thomas Storke, editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press wrote, “Never in my long lifetime have I ever seen such an aroused populace at the grassroots level. This oil pollution has done something I have never seen before in Santa Barbara – it has united citizens of all political persuasions in a truly nonpartisan cause.” Union Oil suffered greater repercussions for this environmental disaster than any corporation in U.S. history to that time. Company president Fred Hartley couldn’t understand, saying, “I am amazed at the publicity for a loss of a few birds.” The spill made people around the nation realize the importance of preserving the landscapes they loved from industrialists. In the two years after the oil spill, national membership in the Sierra Club doubled. The state banned new leases for drilling on offshore state lands, although existing leases continued to operate. Today, companies do still drill in California, but the visual impact to tourists is much lower than a half-century ago.

The oil spill helped lead to the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, shepherded through Congress by Scoop Jackson who is vilified by progressives today for his defense policy but was one of the most important environmentalists in Senate history.

It may not be as bad as 1969, but another oil spill is now polluting the Santa Barbara beaches:

After flowing from the pipeline, crude pooled in a culvert before spilling into the Pacific, where it created a four-mile-long sheen extending about 50 yards into the water. Officials said winds could send the oil another four miles south toward Isla Vista.

The pipeline, built in 1991 and designed to carry about 150,000 barrels of oil per day, is owned by Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline, which said in a statement that it shut down the pipe. The culvert was also blocked to prevent more oil from flowing into the ocean, the company said.

By late Tuesday, a thick layer of crude had begun to wash ashore, with black tar smearing the rocks as the brackish tides arrived.

“It is horrible,” said Brett Connors, 35, a producer from Santa Monica who said he spotted sea lions swimming in the oil slick. “You want to jump in there and save them.”

The reality is that the oil industry is far too lightly regulated as whether in Santa Barbara, Alaska, or off of the Louisiana coast, our energy infrastructure fails over and over to protect the nation’s fragile ecosystems. If the spills are bad enough, like the BP spill, public outrage can again arise, but ultimately very little has changed since that spill, unlike after the original Santa Barbara spill. The social movement to hold corporations accountable for environmental disasters is not what it was in 1969, in part because so many jobs are now outsourced that working people fear any kind of environmental protections will throw them on the street. This shift in attitude is just one of the many cascading effects of the global race to the bottom, a race that benefits corporations at each and every step.

The TPP and Environment

[ 18 ] May 19, 2015 |

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The Trans Pacific Partnership is likely to be as disastrous on environmental issues as it is for labor and intellectual freedom.

In order to avoid dangerous climate change, scientists estimate that 80 percent of the world’s fossil fuels need to remain in the ground. But coal, natural gas, and oil left in the ground means profits left on the table for fossil fuel companies. And under the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), corporations will likely be able to sue governments that interfere with their business — even if it’s by enacting carbon reduction goals and passing environmental legislation.

“Creating a corporate bill of rights to protect investors is incredibly undermining to our ability to protect the environment,” Ben Schreiber, the climate and energy program director for Friends of the Earth, told ThinkProgress.

Previous trade deals have, in fact, led to lawsuits over fossil fuels. An American mining company, Lone Pine Resources, sued the Canadian province of Quebec in 2013 for passing a ban on fracking. The company says the ban cost them $250 million and that under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Quebec is liable for the lost revenue. That lawsuit is ongoing.

In another lawsuit, Chevron alleged that Ecuadorian activists had defrauded the company, after it was ordered to pay $18.2 billion in damages for environmental contamination.

The FBI and Keystone

[ 22 ] May 14, 2015 |

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Above: Obvious environmental extremists

It’s ridiculous that the FBI was violating agency protocol by going to rather extreme measures in monitoring those protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline. Calling the opponents “extremists” (because nothing screams extremist, near-terrorist activity like Bill McKibben…), the FBI cultivated informants and connected its monitoring of the protesters to anti-terrorism investigations. This is pretty bad. But it also suggests how law enforcement sees basically all protestors as enemies and essentially serves not as a neutral agent in society but rather as one defending power.

Arctic Drilling

[ 17 ] May 13, 2015 |

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I am extremely disappointed that President Obama and Interior Secretary Jewell decided to open up Arctic oil drilling. Certain environmental conditions are supposed to be met, but as we all know too well, the oil industry is inherently dangerous and terrible accidents occur all the time (Exxon Valdez, BP disaster, Santa Barbara spill of 1969, etc., etc.). That the administration has granted these rights to Shell is even worse given that company’s awful record:

When the Obama administration announced on Monday that it would let Shell drill for oil off the Alaskan coast this year if it met certain conditions, environmentalists were outraged — not just by the administration’s decision to allow drilling, but by its decision to give Shell, in particular, the green light.

They said that the company’s track record in the Arctic should rule out another chance for it. Shell tried to drill in the Arctic in 2012, and the company’s multibillion-dollar drilling rig, the Kulluk, ran aground. The operator of a drill ship hired by Shell also pleaded guilty to eight felony offenses and agreed to pay $12.2 million over shoddy record-keeping that covered up hazardous conditions and jury-rigged equipment that discharged polluted water.

“Shell has already proven itself not up to the challenge of development in the Arctic Ocean,” said Franz Matzner, the director of the Beyond Oil Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But it’s not just Shell. The fact is, there’s no safe way to pursue oil exploration in the frozen wastes of the Arctic Ocean.”

He added, “This is an inexplicable decision to do something that is dirty, dangerous and unnecessary.”

Shell, Europe’s leading oil company, has spent about $7 billion in the Alaskan Arctic over the last decade, and drilled two shallow wells during the 2012 attempt.

But the federal government did not allow the company to reach the deeper oil-bearing formations because the containment dome designed to cap a runaway well had been destroyed in testing.

Shell executives said they had shaken up their Alaska team, putting in new management that would emphasize better management of contractors, readiness for any problems and contingency plans to care for any accidents.

Trust us, we know what we’re doing! Don’t pay attention to our long and terrible history!

Livestock and Riparian Ecosystems

[ 7 ] May 9, 2015 |

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Nothing motivates the LGM readership like the relationship between agriculture and riparian ecosystems so let’s start this Saturday morning with me recommending you read this report from the Chesapeake Bay Commission on the need to keep livestock out of waterways. Basically, most livestock are allowed to enter riparian ecosystems where they cause shocking damage. But it’s really not that hard to restore riparian ecosystems to reasonable health if the cattle are left out. You create cleaner water, greater biodiversity, and arguably more profitable farming. But it often doesn’t happen for complex reasons the report lays out for the reader quite effectively that revolve around distrust of government, tradition, and regulatory complexity. Given how an organization like the CBC needs to carefully tread very conservative institutions, it’s a pretty good report with a lot of useful suggestions that environmentalists should prioritize.

I will however say that whoever chose the color scheme in that report needs retraining as that pink screen is truly blinding.

Frack, Frack Away!

[ 12 ] May 5, 2015 |

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I’m sure that plunging ahead with fracking will have no unintended consequences or deleterious effects on the environment. Going forward with the procedure without proper testing, oversight, or regulation is a brilliant idea.

A study released Monday on a rural Pennsylvania county’s drinking water found traces of toxic fluids used in the controversial oil and gas drilling technique, fracking. The study, published in the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tackles head on the fear that fracking could contaminate the water supply. “‘This is the first documented and published demonstration of toxic compounds escaping from uncased boreholes in shale gas wells and moving long distances’ into drinking water,” Susan Brantley, one of the study’s authors, told the Associated Press.

The researchers collected drinking water samples in 2012 that contained traces of a chemical commonly used in fracking, as well as in paint, cosmetics, and cleaners. “The industry has long maintained that because fracking occurs thousands of feet below drinking-water aquifers, the drilling chemicals that are injected to break up rocks and release the gas trapped there pose no risk,” according to the New York Times. “In this study, the researchers note that the contamination may have stemmed from a lack of integrity in the drill wells and not from the actual fracking process far below.”

Of course, defenders of fracking will cling to the uncertainty expressed by the researchers as to precisely how these chemicals got in the water supply. On one level, that’s fine because the question clearly calls for additional research. That’s what scientific research does. But on the other hand, the very people who might say that are also those absolutely don’t want to see any restrictions on fracking no matter what scientific research says, such as the overwhelming evidence that fracking causes earthquakes. Scientific research should not be a one-way street, but in a nation that both fetishizes technology and capitalists and in a nation that needs jobs and has not put nearly enough resources into non-fossil fuel energy, it’s hardly surprising.

Book Review: Ellen Griffith Spears: Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town

[ 16 ] April 25, 2015 |

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Ellen Spears’ new environmental history of the chemical industry in Anniston, Alabama is a worthy addition to the literature on environmental justice. She tells the story of Anniston, a city noted for the burning of the Freedom Riders bus in 1961, through both the narrative of civil rights and also the narrative of a modern postwar New South city dominated by the military-industrial complex. Monsanto sited one of its largest plants in Anniston and poisoned the poor and African-American part of the city with massive PCB production. Yet even as the environmental movement fought against PCB production and succeeding in ending the production of these extremely toxic substances in Anniston, Monsanto never got around to telling the local people what was in their soil and water. This quite readable story of race, environmental justice, and chemical corporate greed in one southern city is well worth the time of interested general readers.

Anniston was more of a postbellum southern city and as a representative of the New South, it cultivated both an industry-friendly pose and a city leadership that attempted moderation on racial issues, albeit well within a Jim Crow framework. Even during the bus bombings, the city’s leadership attempted to distance itself from this violence, although without granting rights to African-Americans. Like other New South cities, it attempted to cultivate a reputation of civility, even as its white citizens acted violently toward blacks. In the early 20th century, it began attracting attention from the growing chemical industry.

This growing chemical industry merged with the militarization of the United States after World War II, as national sacrifice zones developed to develop the weapons the U.S. wanted to fight the Cold War. Of course, most of these places took advantage of those who were poor and people of color. So the Mormon and Paiute downwinders of Nevada and Utah, the poor whites living outside of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the African-Americans of Anniston became those who would have to live with the impact of this production. As Spears notes, “pollution is related to other forms of inequality,” and disadvantaged people struggling for basic rights in this nation also struggled to maintain control over their bodies from the vast pollution around them because they were so poor. For wealthier and whiter Anniston in most of the 20th century, pollution was simply the price of progress. And with nonexistent or limited regulation, the corporations simply had no need to tell local people what was happening.

Monsanto developed in St. Louis in 1901 and became a major player in the synthetic chemical industry by World War I. It began expanding its product lines after World War I and entered the nascent PCB market in the 1930s. From very early, Monsanto knew of PCBs dangers because some of its workers got sick and died from exposure. But many of the laborers in the Anniston plant were African-American and so the need to tell them about any of these health issues was essentially nonexistent. Instead, Monsanto tried to shape public relations around the chemicals, assuring the public of their safety and value. That worked for awhile locally, but nationally, the environmental movement began organizing against DDT, PCBs, and other chemicals poisoning the nation. The company had a lot of lose with PCB regulations and bans and its hired scientists went so far as to commit outright fraud in their scientific reports about the safety of PCBs. It worried about being held legally responsible for all its pollution as early as 1970, as up to 80 pounds of PCBs were coming out of the plant in a single day. Finally, PCB production was banned in the United States in 1979 and Monsanto adjusted very nicely.

Through all of this, even as Monsanto was warning its industrial customers about handling PCBs, the company said absolutely nothing to the people who lived near the plant. As public knowledge of the dangers of PCBs built in the nation, activist groups began in Anniston. These usually developed out of the civil rights movement, as activists by the late 1970s started noticing the correlation between impoverished black parts of the country and where corporations and the government sited toxicity. African-Americans in Anniston had long been concerned about the impact of the factory on their community. They soon built upon the nascent environmental justice movement and began organizing to keep themselves and their neighborhoods safe. Making this all the more important was U.S. Army plans to build an incinerator in Anniston to burn chemical weapons stored at the Anniston Army Depot as the Cold War ran down. Both corporate and government entities were actively degrading the bodies of the largely African-American population living near these facilities.

With the discovery of deformed fish in nearby streams, the movement to hold Monsanto accountable really took off in the early 1990s. The activists took Monsanto to court both for compensation for the PCBs and to stop the development of the incinerator. Of course, Monsanto contested every claim. When one scientist based his expert opinion of Monsanto’s culpability by noting the high rates of PCBs in local residents’ blood, the company’s lawyers called him a “fringe scientist.” The company claimed it simply had no idea how contaminated west Anniston was and besides, it was “not a liability issue anymore because it happened so long ago”(257). But in 2003, the lawsuits finally ended with Monsanto agreeing to a $400 million settlement. Yet the attorneys received 40 percent of this money because they were working on a percentage, leaving a great deal of resentment over the attorney fees and a continuing struggle to recoup some of that money today. Plus the cleanup procedures uprooted people from their homes, disrupted ways of life, and destroyed communities. There was no real win for the people who Monsanto had made suffer.

This review is a bit unbalanced compared to the focus of the book. If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that the in depth discussions of the trials and aftermath might be a bit lengthy, taking up about third of the book. Yet while not every detail might be of particular use to scholars, it probably does engage general readers who are interested in how the case developed and who wins and who loses in these struggles. Overall, it’s a very good book, a quality addition to the literature, and likely on my syllabus the next time I teach a graduate seminar in Environmental History.

A Timeline of DDT and Rachel Carson

[ 16 ] April 22, 2015 |

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Might as well mark Earth Day, that once meaningful day that now gives corporations an opportunity to pretend they care about the planet. Let’s note it a different way. American Scientist put together a useful timeline of the history of DDT and Rachel Carson, particularly how both have been discussed in the media. Quite worthy of a bit of your time.

Trout Fishing in America

[ 43 ] April 14, 2015 |

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The bull trout, an endangered trout species of the Pacific Northwest and southwest Canada, in part because of introduced brook trout.

The cost of trout fishing upon our river ecosystems is high. That’s because we’ve industrialized the trout, like we’ve industrialized so many animals.

Twenty-eight million Americans will buy freshwater fishing licenses this year. Eight million of them will be trout and salmon anglers. Native wild trout have mostly disappeared in the face of this immense fishing pressure. They have been replaced by nonnative hatchery fish and their river-born “wild” trout offspring. Nationwide, state and federal fisheries agencies dump some 130 million trout in lakes, rivers and streams each year. Although this stocking lures people outside, the hatcheries that produce these trout create environmental problems.

Trout aquaculture is heavily reliant on pellet feed. The federal and state hatchery production of some 28 million pounds of trout per year requires roughly 34 million pounds of feed. These pellets are derived from herring, menhaden and anchovies harvested from oceans in quantities that the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say are unsustainable. We are devastating populations of marine species simply to support a freshwater hobby.

If that’s not bad enough, hatcheries are major polluters. Each year, much of the roughly six million pounds of fish excrement, uneaten food and dead and decaying fish that I estimate are produced by these hatcheries leach nutrients into wastewater that is often then dumped untreated into the closest stream or river. This wastewater can also contain medicines and antibiotics used to limit diseases in crowded pens, and disinfectants that sterilize holding tanks. Ultimately, these hatcheries may be contributing to the proliferation of “dead zones” — biological wastelands created by excess nutrients — that are choking estuaries and coastal ecosystems downstream.

Although stocking trout is harmful, eating them is far better than eating native wild trout. When these native fish die, their genetic uniqueness dies, too. (Brook and lake trout are the only trout native to the entire Northeast, for instance; nonnatives like brown, rainbow and golden trout are also released into Northeast streams.) Unfortunately, many states set uniformly high catch limits that draw no distinction between native versus nonnative trout. Therefore, anglers need to hold themselves to a higher standard than the rules that govern their actions.

It’s tough. Maybe we shouldn’t worry about it too much. After all, fishing is a major recreational activity for millions of Americans and just because it has screwed wild fish stocks, does that mean it should end? Should we just accept that we have industrialized this activity and go for it? Do wild fish stocks matter? I’d argue yes for the last question and say that managing this resource also means ensuring as much of a healthy ecological system as possible.

The Public Lands

[ 31 ] April 11, 2015 |

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It’s worth remembering that central to the Republican agenda is selling off every acre of public land possible (which is everything outside of national parks, national monuments, national preserves, and wilderness areas*) to the highest bidder, which are almost inevitably timber and mining companies, and sometimes grazing interests or perhaps the 1% who want to create baronial estates. A budgetary amendment to move this idea forward, although it really doesn’t have meaningful legal standing, just passed the Senate by a 51-49 vote. A massive firesale of public lands is entirely possible the next time Republicans control the presidency and both houses on Congress. But you know, vote 3rd party in 2016 because drones.

*The linked article says wilderness areas can be sold, but I am pretty sure this is not true given that federally designated wilderness areas have more restrictions on usage than national parks.

Environmental Groups Supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

[ 13 ] April 4, 2015 |

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The White House blog has been shamelessly claiming how progressive and good for the American people the Trans-Pacific Partnership is. The other day, it sent out a message about how the TPP was good for environmental issues and included quotes from environmentalists who supported it. What? The World Wildlife Fund and Nature Conservancy are supporting the TPP? Here’s Carter Roberts, CEO of the WWF:

A major trade agreement among these countries that includes strong environmental obligations could provide critical new protections for some of our planet’s important natural resources. More specifically, it could disrupt some of the most notorious trading routes that are driving the current global wildlife poaching epidemic.

As nearly four years of negotiations come to a close, TPP countries face a choice. Do they keep their promise to create an ambitious 21st century trade deal with a fully enforceable environment chapter or do they abandon real environmental protections for weak, voluntary promises?

The U.S. has pressed hard throughout the process, and in response to the recent leak of the environment chapter, US Trade Representative Ambassador Mike Froman wrote that our government “will insist on a robust, fully enforceable environment chapter in the TPP or we will not come to agreement.”

It’s great to see the U.S. continue to publicly show its support for the environment. US leadership is paramount to delivering a final TPP with strong conservation protections, but it’s critical that other TPP nations make similar public commitments. As major producers and traders of wildlife, fish and timber, all negotiating nations have a responsibility to ensure that resources are well managed and that illegal trade and subsidies do not contribute to the depletion of fish stocks or increase illegal logging and wildlife trafficking.

Of course, many environmental groups oppose the TPP, although their voices have not been very strong in the debate. The Natural Resources Defense Council:

As a result, any trade agreement with these countries must address the key environmental and conservation challenges facing us in the 21st century, such as destruction of our oceans, wildlife, forests, public health, and climate. The U.S. has pushed for a minimum set of conservation protections in the TPP Environment Chapter – just one of 29 TPP chapters. But the devil is in the details and there are a number of aspects that the U.S. has resisted including in the agreement and provisions that could undermine key environmental safeguards. Unfortunately due to arcane rules pushed by the U.S., we have no idea what is in this agreement and won’t know until the final deal is reached as the documents are kept secret. But we do have some insights into a couple of aspects, including the Environment Chapter, thanks to leaks of earlier versions of the negotiating documents. And the signs from those leaks were troubling enough that NRDC, Sierra Club, and WWF raised serious concerns back in January about the reported language in the Environment Chapter.

So as negotiators make a final push to wrap up agreements this year, thirteen leading environmental and conservation groups – including NRDC, Sierra Club, WWF, League of Conservation Voters, and Oceana – sent a letter to the U.S. government articulating basic minimum conservation protections that need to be included in the final TPP environment chapter. On top of that a number of groups, including NRDC, have raised concerns about other TPP provisions including the inclusion of secret courts that would give new rights to corporations to challenge environmental and other public interest policies in un-transparent trade tribunals and the exclusion of key environmental agreements that address climate change or mercury pollution. At the same time, these trade agreements don’t establish minimum environmental safeguards that each participating country must meet, such as protecting their citizens from dangerous pollution. Here is a basic summary of my organization’s minimum requirements for the TPP. Unfortunately the leaked documents fall well short of these principles.

Interestingly, both sides of this within environmentalism are using the issue of enforceability as the key to their point. A few of the more conservative and less far-reaching groups are pointing specifically to wildlife trafficking protections as the reason to support it while those with a broader agenda see another version of NAFTA, lacking real, meaningful, and enforceable regulations on transnational environmental issues.

It’s worth noting here that some environmental groups decided to support NAFTA in 1993 because they wanted to continue to be part of the conversation and be in a favorable position with the Clinton administration. That strategy worked very poorly for the environment itself given the huge negative impacts on the Mexican environment from American corporations outsourcing production. It’s possible that is what some of the pro-TPP groups are thinking here again. It’s a short-sighted strategy.

You can read the Wikileaks account of the draft environmental passages of the TPP from 2014 here
. It does not look promising.

Why the Endangered Species Act Matters

[ 14 ] April 3, 2015 |

Murrelet

I think the Endangered Species Act is really quite underrated in the history of transformative American legislation. Everyone knows about it on a basic level, but it’s role in saving entire ecosystems from industrial production is really quite remarkable. Take the marbled murrelet. People know about the northern spotted owl and the role it played in shutting down old growth timber production in the Pacific Northwest. But the murrelet is just as important and in the long run maybe more as the barred owl is eliminating spotted owls on its own. The marbled murrelet only nests on think high branches in old growth forests. Get rid of the old growth and the murrelet goes extinct. The environmental historian Char Miller:

These economic benefits ran right into an interrelated set of ecological deficits for which Furnish and his peers along the northern Pacific coast had to account: steep declines in spotted-owl and salmon populations, as well as troubling data about timber harvesting’s impact on the marbled murrelet. By the late 1990s, federal and state scientists assessing murrelet behavior ranging from the Santa Cruz Mountains north into Oregon had concluded that breeding murrelets exhibit site fidelity, that is, they return year after year to the same nesting area. As such, if a nesting stand is logged off, these particular birds may not breed again.

On the Siuslaw, for example, the data revealed that “nine out of ten mature timber stands had nesting owls and murrelets — which meant no more timber harvest.” What Furnish and his leadership team concluded was that “this incredibly productive landscape could not simultaneously maximize timber products and wildlife.” Because these redwood, spruce, and fir forests were “the womb that sustained this natural abundance,” and because by law this abundance itself must be sustained, “the remaining mature forest in the Coastal Range would stay standing.”

In an effort to undo this principled reasoning, the timber industry has been trying to delist the marbled murrelet as a threatened species, stripping it of its protections and opening the way for a return of clearcutting. As Furnish wrote me in an email: “The timber industry continues to take the narrow, regressive view that the Endangered Species Act simply doesn’t matter.”

But the timber industry consistently fails to win these battles because the ESA language is strong. Theoretically, the next time Republicans control all branches of government, the law could repealed. That wouldn’t surprise me at all. But as of right now, it has saved not only a bird like the marbled murrelet, but the entire ecosystem it relies upon.

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