Sacrificing to the Sacred Owl

In ancient religions, practiced by primitive cultures, it was customary to make sacrifices to sundry gods and idols. Some of the more sanguinary cults engaged in human sacrifice.

We like to consider such practices far removed from our civilized modern society. However, we make far more extravagant sacrifices to our sacred idols than the ancients ever dreamed of making.

While the ancients may have slaughtered the odd sheep or bull or virgin on the altar of an angry god, we sacrifice entire regions of our country, decimating their economies, wiping out employment for thousands of people, destroying their livelihoods and breaking up homes, creating widespread poverty and sending statistics on domestic violence, divorce, and drug abuse soaring through the roof, as once-productive and self-sufficient communities decline into indigence.

And to what powerful god are we making this enormous human sacrifice? Well, it’s not a god, exactly. It’s a Sacred Owl.

The Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) was adopted in 1994 to “protect” the Sacred Owl. Nobody actually knew how many Sacred Owls existed at the time; nor did they know how many had existed in any previous period. Nobody had ever counted them. Instead, they created a model based on nesting habitat. Since Sacred Owls nest in “old growth,” and “old growth” was being reduced by logging, the model inferred that the Sacred Owl population must be declining also.

Based on this model, the powers that be concluded the Sacred Owl must be endangered. Since the Sacred Owl also requires younger stands and clearings for forage, the critical habitat designation was broadened to include most of the public forest lands in the Pacific Northwest. This opened the door for the environmental movement to litigate virtually any timber sale on public lands under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act.

Today, the environmentalists claim the Sacred Owl population is still declining at an alarming rate. So we must set aside even more land as “critical habitat,” sacrificing even more production, jobs, and communities. But, if the Sacred Owl population really is declining so rapidly, eighteen years after the NWFP was put into effect, then clearly the plan is not successful and should be scrapped. Why double down on a failed plan?

Perhaps, from the perspective of the environmental movement, the plan hasn’t really been a failure. Suppose, instead, it has been wildly successful. How could that be, if the Sacred Owl population is even worse off today than it was before the NWFP was implemented?

Let’s do a little thought experiment. What if the Sacred Owl was only a means to an end, rather than an end in itself? Suppose for a moment that the environmental movement wanted to eliminate logging on public lands. In order to accomplish that, they would need to find a law that would allow them to challenge any government timber sale and tie it up in litigation until the legal expenses exceeded the revenues.

The Endangered Species Act would serve that purpose well. They would just need to come up with an endangered species that lives in places where logging occurs. Of course, it couldn’t be just any endangered species, like an insect or rodent or fungus. It would have to be something cute and appealing, something cuddly-looking that people who live in cities would want to protect.

Enter the Spotted Owl. With apologies to Voltaire, if the Spotted Owl didn’t exist, the environmentalists would have had to invent him.

Serendipitously, the Sacred Owl has proven very lucrative for the environmental movement. They discovered another law, called the Equal Access to Justice Act, which requires the government to reimburse legal fees for the prevailing party in lawsuits against the federal government.

In the last four years alone, more than 570 lawsuits have been filed under the Endangered Species Act. When the environmentalists lose, it costs them very little because their attorneys belong to the movement. When they win, they can claim up to $500 an hour in attorney fees.

Just since 2009, U.S. taxpayers have paid the environmental movement more than $15 million in attorney fees for preventing the productive and sustainable use of natural resources on public lands.

So it’s easy to see why this owl is sacred to the environmental movement. It’s been very good to them. But how many more jobs, how many more communities, how many more local economies are we willing to sacrifice to this Sacred Owl, and to its high priests in the environmental movement, before we expose this dangerous cult for what it is? How many more sacrifices can our nation afford to make?

Competition for Natural Resources

When we talk about endangered species, we need to draw a distinction between species that are recklessly endangered through over-hunting, for sport or commercial purposes, and species that are endangered because of interspecies competition for resources, whether the competition is with man or with other species. There’s a clear difference between (a) protecting a species from being hunted to extinction and (b) seeking out any species that’s facing extinction due to its lack of fitness or adaptation to the ever-changing environment, and attempting to protect it from it’s natural fate.

We have laws that prohibit “taking” of endangered species. I fully support those laws. The recovery of the bald eagle is an excellent example of how those laws serve their intended purpose. The bald eagle was not facing extinction because it couldn’t adapt to a changing environment, but because people were hunting it out of existence. When the hunting of bald eagles was banned, the species recovered on its own. I have no problem with prohibiting the taking of spotted owls, snail darters, and short nosed suckerfish. But that’s not the issue with them.

When the environment changes, whether that change was impacted by man or not, if a species can’t adapt without intervention, then intervention is futile. It can do no more than postpone the inevitable. Attempting to keep a species that is not adapted to the existing environment on permanent life support is not sustainable. When the environment changes, however that change comes about, the natural law is adapt or die. Man didn’t make that law, and man cannot change it.

Some admonish that man should not change the environment. Unfortunately, that isn’t an option. Man isn’t the only species that changes its environment. Nature is all about adaptation. Environments adapt to the impacts of their inhabitants, just as species adapt to their changing environments. But one of the reasons the human species is so successful is because, when man cannot adapt to his environment, he has learned to intentionally adapt the environment to man. Sometimes that necessarily happens at the expense of other species who compete for the same resources within the environment. But interspecies competition for limited resources is all part of nature.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t try to mitigate our impact. Responsible stewardship is in our own best interest. If we use up our resources with no thought to replenishment, and destroy the very resources on which we depend, we would end up sabotaging ourselves. There is no justification for gratuitous destruction, but all progress comes at some cost. The question is what is an acceptable cost? If we stopped all production and consumption, shut down all factories, stopped driving cars, flying in airplanes, transporting goods by boat or train, stopped heating our homes, and (above all) stopped breeding more human beings, all of these would lessen our impact on the environment. Does that mean it’s incumbent on us to do those things?

Every advance mankind has made throughout our rise to civilization has come at the expense of various natural environments. Every acre of land in this country that is productive or valuable today was once some natural wilderness of one sort or another, providing habitat for numerous species, some of which have successfully adapted, while others have not. The creatures who inhabited the land on which our cities and towns and suburbs and farms and industrial areas are laid out had to either adapt to the changes, migrate to new terrirories, or face extinction. And that will continue to happen for millennia to come.

Innumerable species have come and gone on this planet before man ever existed. Many more will come and go in the course of eternity. Our species’ impact on the environment will necessarily affect the evolution of other species, just as every species impacts every other species in its ecosystem. That’s the way of nature.

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