Saturday, December 27, 2008

Neither logging nor subdivisions

Farmland dominates the Willamette Valley, not development.

This is response I wrote to a recent editorial in the Oregonian basically stating the tired condos vs cows or in this case, the condos vs clearcuts argument and chastising some environmentalists for continuing to oppose logging when in the Oregonians view they should wise up and see that timber companies are really "our friends."

To see the original editorial go to:

Neither logging or subdivisions are good for the land.

George Wuerthner

The December 26th editorial in the Oregonian suggested that the logging industry deserves the support of environmentalists or these companies might sell their land for subdivisions. Unfortunately the Oregonian editors relied on flawed information to reach their conclusions. I'm sure if they had access to better information we would have seen a much different viewpoint.

The implied message is that we should tolerate environmental degradation and biological impoverishment resulting from logging because it’s better than a subdivision. That’s like suggesting we should encourage people to be alcoholics because otherwise they might become heroin addicts. Obviously neither is good for society, and neither are subdivisions and/or logging impacts.


There are two things wrong with such a false dichotomy. The first is that subdivisions are not necessarily worse than logging and the likelihood of new rural subdivisions in the current economy is a minor threat—though obviously in Oregon due to its terrific land use laws, even this threat is more imaginary than real.

The geographic footprint from all development in the US is actually quite small. It may not seem that way to someone living in Portland, but the bulk of the US landscape is not urbanized and/or developed. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service approximately 5.4% of the land area of the US is estimated to be developed—that includes all highways, malls, factories, housing tracts, etc--any development that involves more than a quarter acre of land. In Oregon, approximately 2% of the land area is developed. Even California which has the largest population in the country and huge urbanization pressures, developed land occupies slightly more than 5% of the state.

One can easily confirm this with a drive down the Willamette Valley at night. The thing that is most striking to me is how once you leave the immediate area of the few cities like Portland, Salem and Eugene, one sees very few lights despite the fact that 70% of Oregon residents live in this one valley. It’s not urbanization that has biologically impoverished the Willamette Valley as well as the rest of Oregon, but forestry, farming, and livestock production. That is not to suggest that development is good for the land—it’s not, but Oregon has wisely chosen to limit such development through its land use laws.


Even if we were to limit the discussion to forested lands (as opposed to open lands like the Willamette Valley) it is not housing tracts that fragments, degrades and biologically impoverishes these lands, it is logging. For instance, there are far more miles of logging roads in Oregon than all the roads among subdivisions, highways, etc. combined. And since most of these roads leak sediments into streams, fragment the landscape, spread weeds, degrade watersheds, and so forth, the overall ecological footprint of logging is far greater than subdivisions—and I predict will always be so as long as there is a timber industry left in Oregon. Statistics on endangered species support that contention with the bulk of species endangerment in Oregon as well as the rest of the West due to resource extraction industries like farming, ranching and logging.


The second assumption of the argument that deserves critical review is the economics of development. Given the current housing glut, and economic situation, there is not much demand for rural land development any place in the country right now.

We could reduce any future demand considerably if we internalized the real costs of rural development. These costs include fire fighting to protect those properties, the effects of leaky septic systems on water quality, habitat fragmentation, costs of transporting kids from far flung housing tracts to schools, and so on. If these real costs were not externalized to all taxpayers but internalized on developers as well as owners of homes far from towns and cities, there would be little demand for rural forest development.

Instead of enumerating all these costs to both logging and subdivisions, too many environmental groups either out of ignorance or lack of courage are afraid to articulate the real costs of both logging and development, so citizens are not able to make reasonable choices.

Fortunately Oregon Wild has the courage to articulate these environmental and economic costs, and Oregonians can be thankful they do.


The choice isn’t logging or subdivisions as implied by the Oregonian. Neither is good for the land, and we should strive to curb the impacts of both. One of the great things about Oregon is that its land use laws do limit the spread of unwise subdivisions. Unfortunately, the state hasn’t done a good job of limiting unwise logging. Most of the real costs associated with logging are externalized—which is why salmon and marbled murrelets are among the many species endangered, not as a result of subdivisions, but as a consequence of logging.


BikeRedlands said...


Thanks for the info regarding the NRCS. This is very useful and something I previously hadn't known where to find.


Peter Fischer said...

If the land is in private hands it has to be used for something. If it can't be used for housing or timber, what is its value. If it has a public value, than the public, gov't needs to purchase the land so the public can enjoy its value.