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Of owls, ethics and other matters

Saadia Iqbal's picture

There’s no denying the importance of biodiversity. When scientists, NGOs, policymakers and others try to convince everyone to protect biodiversity, they remind us of how we depend on it for livelihoods, medicines, soil protection and all kinds of other things, big and small.

So, naturally, we as humans have a selfish interest in looking after our world’s plants and animals.

But what about when protecting those plants and animals comes at tremendous economic cost—a cost that some argue is not worth the species’ contribution to humanity?  Take the spotted owl controversy. Some years ago, environmentalists had the spotted owl of the US Pacific Northwest region added to the endangered species list. This meant that the timber industry was no longer be able to clear any land inhabited by the owl, which resulted in a major debate between the two groups.

These are the main points that each side argued:


  • Protecting the spotted owl means saving the entire ecosystem in which it lives; an ecosystem on which other animals, plants and humans depend.
  • Species and their ecosystems have an aesthetic value that is priceless for nature lovers. Destroying them is equivalent to destroying beautiful works of art.
  • The owl and its habitat are of immense scientific value; we have yet to explore this unique ecosystem and its role in our lives.
  • Even if saving the owls’ habitat does cost jobs in the short-run, in any case these jobs would vanish in the long-run because at the current rate of deforestation old-growth forests would be gone in 30 years. Many jobs in the Pacific Northwest could be saved simply by restricting the export of raw timber and processing those logs locally instead. 
  • Every living creature has a right to life, and its life has intrinsic value. To deliberately destroy this animal’s habitat violates its right to exist.

Timber Industry

  • The benefits of saving the spotted owl are negligible compared to the harm that will be done. Reduced logging in the old-growth forests would harm the whole country, particularly people living in the Pacific Northwest. One report estimated that up to 28,000 jobs would be lost.
  • Cutting the old growth is essential because once these trees have reached maturity, most of their energy is spent simply maintaining themselves, rather than in new growth. For present and future generations to have the wood and paper products they need, it is in society's best interest to replace these static forests with healthy, young trees that will provide an adequate supply of timber.
  • Hundreds of thousands of acres of old-growth forests have already been set aside as national parks and wilderness areas, and there are plenty of opportunities for "aesthetic experiences," recreation, and biological exploration. Furthermore, our desire for aesthetic experiences should not be given more importance than people’s basic need, such as jobs or housing.
  • Alternative sources of wood that environmentalists suggest, are less strong, and cannot be used to produce many products, such as fine furniture and musical instruments. Until substitutes can be found, society has no choice but to rely on wood from old-growth forests.
  • While humans may have a duty to prevent unnecessary harm to animals, they are not obliged to put animal protection above their own interests.

So, after seeing both sides of the story, where do you stand on the issue? Have you witnessed any similar controversies in your communities? Be sure to also vote in our current poll, which addresses this topic.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service