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Why the Endangered Species Act Matters

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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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