By Ernie Niemi
If somebody says they’re using Oregon’s natural resources in a sustainable manner, that’s good, right? Not always. Some folks use the word as a deceptive cover for activities that actually aren’t sustainable. When they do, you and I can take a huge economic hit.
On the surface, sustainability is a question of numbers: Does Mother Nature have the capacity to allow us to continue doing something that consumes water, land and other natural resources? In reality, though, sustainability also is about economics. Will the benefits cover the costs? If not, then the consumption of natural resources will lower our economic well-being. This is especially true if just a small group enjoys the benefits and passes the costs onto the rest of us.
Consider two examples: beavers and timber.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission recently gave permission for trappers and hunters to kill about 1,500 beavers per year. These are not beavers that cause problems by building a pond that floods a farmer’s field. No, these beavers are killed primarily for fun. (“Recreational permit” holders kill just for fun, “commercial permit” holders can sell pelts, but prices are low, indicating that they kill mostly for fun.)
Commission members took this action after hearing from staff that the beavers killed will be replaced by offspring from those not killed. So, the number of beavers killed must be sustainable, because it can continue year after year.
The staff ignored the economics. Dead beavers can’t provide valuable services. For example, they can’t create ponds that otherwise would provide habitat for fish and birds, trap water in a stream in the winter to reduce the risk of downstream flooding and release the water in late summer to increase supplies for communities and irrigators. The value of these losses far exceeds the value of the fun the trappers and hunters enjoy from killing the animals.
Dead beavers are particularly important economically because they can’t create the habitat Oregon’s salmon need to stop their slide toward extinction. Economists at Oregon State University have shown that increasing the population of Oregon coast coho salmon would provide economic benefits totaling more than $500 million per year. Biologists from the National Fisheries Management Service have concluded that, to see this increase, we need more beavers in coastal streams. So killing beavers for fun in this region increases the risk that the coho population will not increase and that Oregonians will not see millions of dollars of economic benefits, year after year.
We get economically bruised even worse by the timber industry when it uses numbers to boast that timber production is sustainable. The industry plants a million seedlings in plantations, lets them grow 30 years or so, then clear-cuts them and replants another million seedlings. The numbers are the same, hence the industry must be sustainable.
Economics tells a vastly different story. This process generates huge costs for all Oregonians. It degrades water in streams, killing fish and threatening our drinking water supplies. Clear-cut logging tends to make wildland fires burn more intensely, because it exposes the land to the sun, creating hotter and drier microclimates, and it leaves behind limbs and other residues that provide tinder for wildfires.
Most important, though, are the climate-related costs the timber industry imposes on our future. The timber industry emits more carbon dioxide than any other activity in Oregon, including the burning of fossil fuels in cars and trucks. Future generations will pay the costs for heatwaves, droughts and other changes in climate made worse by the industry’s emissions. Current research shows these costs will total at least $9 billion per year, and probably a lot more.
These examples show that massive economic harm can lurk in the shadows whenever state officials and industries use numbers alone to persuade us that a resource-consumption activity is sustainable.
If Gov. Kate Brown and our legislators truly care about our economic future, they will put an end to these shenanigans and promote only those activities that will be good for Mother Nature and the economic well-being of all Oregonians.
Ernie Niemi is president of Natural Resource Economics in Eugene.