PULLMAN – A major fear of the 1990s spotted owl controversy — that less logging would increase unemployment and poverty — did not significantly materialize on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, according to a new analysis by a WSU researcher.
Annabel Kirschner, a professor in the department of community and rural sociology at WSU, said the peninsula’s economic well-being was already hit hard by changes in the timber industry when harvest limits in spotted owl habitat began in the 1990s. More than timber limits, the industry restructuring continued to affect poverty in the 1990s. Meanwhile, according to Kirschner’s statistical analysis, Native American and Latino populations were significant and often overlooked factors in the peninsula’s poverty and unemployment.
“During the spotted owl debate, almost no attention was paid to the presence of minorities on the peninsula,” Kirschner wrote in the peer-reviewed “Social Science Journal.” “This is a weakness of much poverty research in rural areas, and this finding emphasizes the importance of considering the presence of these populations in rural areas when considering well-being.”
Kirschner’s research, “Understanding Poverty and Unemployment in the Olympic Peninsula after the Spotted Owl,” was funded by WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences and the Olympic Natural Resources Center. The peninsula-based center was created by the state Legislature to bring science to bear on natural resource and ecological issues.
The Northern Spotted Owl was listed as an endangered species in 1990, leading to sharp limits on timber harvests across the Pacific Northwest. In the ensuing controversy, spotted owls were hung in effigy while rural, “owl county” homes and businesses posted signs saying they were “supported by timber dollars.”
Kirschner said much of the “jobs versus the environment” debate was based on “export-based” economic theory, which assumes rural communities succeed and grow by exporting their natural resources. However, she said, forest industry technology had grown so sophisticated that it was providing fewer jobs and investments in local communities. Meanwhile, service industries, increasing education levels, a near doubling of commuting opportunities and retirement incomes helped mitigate the forest industry’s decline in the 1990s.
At the same time, Native Americans and a growing Latino population had a significant effect on the peninsula’s unemployment and poverty rate. The six peninsula counties studied by Kirschner have nine Native American reservations. The peninsula’s Latino population grew by more than 140 percent in the 1990s, with many new arrivals taking low-wage jobs planting and thinning trees and gathering non-timber forest products.
Kirschner said minorities’ poverty and unemployment could be attributable to lower education levels and, in the case of Latinos, their recent arrival from Central and South America. They may also be experiencing the lingering effects of prejudice and discrimination, she said.
“In any case, it is important for those who are interested in the well-being of rural communities in the West to investigate the presence of minority groups which may be at least as important, if not more important, than the changing natural resource base of these communities.”