There are jobs in that river

There are jobs in that river

(Sixth in an eight-part series on the history and successes of Pacific Rivers)

— by Ernie Niemi —

Pacific Rivers has always been concerned with how its actions would affect local communities. In the 90s, it was often a matter of tempering the economic loss that comes with less logging.

Until it wasn’t.

Pacific Rivers realized early on that environment versus economy is a false choice. The real choice is jobs without clean water and healthy rivers, fish and forests, or jobs with clean water and healthy rivers, fish and forests.

Which would you choose?

Of course, the Council wanted the latter. In the 1990s, they hired me, an economist, to study the full economic impact of a healthy river and surrounding forest.

It wasn’t immediately obvious that we could have a healthy environment and a healthy economy.

At first, the Council asked me to simply analyze the economic effects of reduced logging in Oregon because they didn’t want to rely on the timber industry’s predictions of economic woe, which seemed exaggerated.

After running my own analysis, it turned out the timber industry was indeed exaggerating about how many jobs would be lost if we stopped logging mature forests. But I was also surprised that protecting mature forests actually offered numerous economic benefits in the way of clean water, abundant fish, quality of life, and more.

Healthy rivers with abundant fish provide numerous tourism benefits for local communities. Anglers and rafters buy gear, food, lodging and gas.

Healthy rivers also benefit communities downstream via clean water. When downstream communities have clean water, they avoid the cost of filtering, allowing downstream industries to reduce costs and compete better.

Healthy rivers and lands improve quality of life, thus attracting talented workers to support new and expanding businesses. Natural resources like forests can be viewed as commodities, or as amenities to locating households.

Finally, healthy rivers support salmon. And the economic benefits of salmon are abundant: commercial fishing, recreational fishing, clean water, reduced flood risk, and more. To spread this message, in 2000 the Council wrote a letter called Salmon and the Economy, which I and 75 other economists signed and sent to the four Pacific Coast governors and the premier of British Columbia. It may seem like an obvious strategy now, but it was the first letter of its kind explaining the economic benefits of conservation to political leaders.

When Pacific Rivers hired my colleagues and I to quantify the number of fishing-related jobs in Oregon, it was a turning point for the timber wars in Oregon. Our analysis gave political leaders a sound economic reason to support the Endangered Species Act. After seeing our analysis, Gov. Barbara Roberts came out against proposals to set aside the Endangered Species Act when logging federal forests in Oregon, noting that we could have owls and jobs.

Pacific Rivers was part of a vanguard in the movement to prove that environmental protection would create jobs. After the jobs v. owls debate of the 1990s, it was a welcome and needed change. The effects of this change are seen even today as Pacific Rivers works to conserve forests on Oregon’s O&C lands. According to my analysis, industrial logging on O&C lands will leave them unable to provide clean water, recreation and carbon storage — services worth 10 to 20 times more than the timber value.

Ernie Niemi is an economist with Natural Resource Economics.

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