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Endangered Species and Environmental Leverage

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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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