Spotted Howls


In a Dark Wood: The Fight Over Forests and the Rising Tyranny of Ecology, by Alston Chase, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 535 pages, $29.95

Ten years ago, in his book Playing God in Yellowstone, Alston Chase took on two supposed line shining lights in American life: the National Park Service and the environmental movement. Chase showed how the Park Service, captured by an environmental religion that fetishized its vision of nature, was passively all owing exploding elk populations to destroy important parts of Yellowstone National Park. The same misplaced religious zeal threatened the future of the park's grizzly bear population as well.

In a Dark Wood has Chase returning to these themes in a new setting: the spotted owl controversy in the Pacific Northwest. Here again, in an excess of religious enthusiasm, the environmental movement is wreaking havoc. Tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of mills representing significant p ortions of the Pacific Northwest timber industry have been wiped out, and the federal government has lost $20 billion in future timber revenues–money that will have to be recovered from taxpayer pockets. Equally important for Chase, the ultimate outcome i s likely to be bad for the environment as well.

As in Yellowstone, Chase finds a false understanding of nature at the heart of the problem. Environmentalists are driven to recover the Garden of Eden–the forest conditions of the Pacific Northwest before Columbus. The spotted owl crusade, as Chase follow s its course, becomes a spiritual quest having little to do with forests and owls and much to do with finding personal salvation. Chase portrays environmental leaders caught up in their search for religious inspiration, with little interest in an accurate scientific understanding of old-growth forests or in practical steps to better protect them.

Thus, environmentalists willfully avert their eyes from the fact that forest fires swept across the Pacific Northwest with great regularity until their suppression in the 20th century. Indeed, Native Americans frequently used fire as a management tool, recognizing that a wide variety of habitat conditions yielded larger and more diverse game populations. Amazingly en ough, Chase suggests that, even with the massive timber harvesting since World War II, there may still be more old-growth forest standing in the Pacific Northwest today than in pre-European times.

Another case of willful ignorance on the part of environmentalists affected the controversy. The northern spotted owl probably never should have been listed as a threatened species in the first place. Virtually nothing was known about the owl until the 1970s. By the mid-1980s, as environmental groups were deciding that the owl would be the chosen instrument for shutting down federal timber harvesting in the region, there were only a handful of academic studies on the owl. The federal courts then prematurely forced the Interior Department to list the spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act, just as the scientific data were starting to accumulate. When this research finally became available after the owl listing in 1990, estimates of owl numbers soared–from 3,000 to 12,000 and heading still higher. Contrary to the assumption behind the listing, it increasingly appears that spotted owls do well in young forest stands and may even require them.

To be sure, the owl was never the real object. Environmentalists from the beginning sought preservation of the full forest ecology–the "ancient cathedrals," as they conceived these areas. Once again, though, actual science proved uncooperative. "Ecological management" depends on the idea that a forest or other natural system moves through a succession of transitional stage s to reach a final equilibrium or "climax" stage. Europeans had supposedly disrupted this happy equilibrium, but the methods of ecosystem management would now restore it. Theologically speaking, an original condition of harmony with nature had once existed, but fallen human beings had betrayed this true state of nature, leaving environmentalists today with the mission to recover the original condition. If this doesn't sound familiar, I suggest you consult your nearest Bible.

The ecological vision of succession and climax, offering a (thin) scientific veneer for the environmental gospel, did in fact have wide scientific acceptance until the 1970s. By the 1990s, however, any ideas of an inherent tendency toward stability in nature had been replaced by an evolutionary biology of chaos and unpredictability. As environmental historian Donald Worster commented in 1993, "The climax notion is dead, the ecosystem has receded in usefulness….Nature should be regarded as a landscape of patches, big and little, changing continually through time and space, responding to an unceasing barrage of perturbations."

For environmentalists, however, coming to terms with this new understanding would have been the equivalent of conceding the Garden of Eden had never existed. Not surprisingly, the environmental movement has treated the science about the same way the Catholic Church reacted centuries ago to the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. Indeed, Al Gore, Bruce Babbitt, and other environmental crusaders of the Clinton administration have enshrined ecological management as the official philosophy of the federal government, even as most scientists now say it has no valid foundation.

In a Dark Wood reads like a good novel. Chase sketches the personalities of key participants in the spotted owl drama, often pausing to give a short life history. The book is filled with interesting details and has a strong plot. Indeed, Chase is not immune from some of the same tendencies he criticizes in environmentalists. The spotted owl story is gradually revealed as yet another fierce struggle between good and evil. For Chase, the devil is the idea of the ecosystem and biocentrism, which is corrupting environmentalists–who are basically good people–and leading them into the destructive excesses of contemporary religious warfare.

But there are other ways to interpret the events in the Pacific Northwest. Timber companies with large private lands have thrived, even as competitors dependent on federal land have been eliminated. The spotted owl has proven a remarkably effective anti-competitive device. On the environmental side, there is a constant need to raise large sums of money to pay for fancy buildings and professional staff. Organizational imperatives therefore demand a continuing stream of polarizing conflicts with national publicity to stimulate the faithful's contributions. This is not religion; it is just good business practice.

Nor should one be surprised to find that the environmental gospel may serve other purposes besides inspiring devotion. Indeed, this faith has provided a religious sanction for the takeover of the federal forests of the Pacific Northwest by the new urban and professional groups moving into the region in such large numbers. The conflict became all the more bloody because of the very fact of public ownership of these lands. Politics, not market trading, would have to be the determining factor in deciding the future uses of the lands.

And in the political fray the new recreational groups were not unique in their willingness to fight with whatever tools they could grab. If bad science and clothing themselves in the garb of religious righteousness were what it would take to get control over federal forests, so be it. The spotted owl struggle, in short, was a product not only of a misconceived theology but also of a flawed institutional framework of public land ownership, one which tended to foment conflict and to bring out the worst in those involved.

In Playing God in Yellowstone, Chase portrayed the religious origins of environmentalism as largely deriving from pagan, Asian, Native American, and other non-Christian sources. He now has a revised and more convincing explanation for why so many Americans are drawn to environmental religion.

The environmental crusade is the heir to the "Calvinist certainty in the righteousness of its cause," Chase says: It derives from a Puritanism deeply rooted in American life. The Calvinist world of depraved humanity is now rediscovered as an environmental vision of human beings as the cancer of the earth, sinners raping the land and environment, who will pave the way for their own destruction.

Christianity has always had a strong strain skeptical of wealth, business success, the drive for consumption, and the affairs of the world. In America, as Chase traces, these attitudes were first found in Puritan Massachusetts, were transmitted in the 19th century to New England transcendentalism, later reached John Muir in California, and then made their way in a secular language into the contemporary environmental movement. Indeed, events as central to American history as the War of Independence and the Civil War were in part products of the revolutionary Puritan will to cleanse the world of evil. In short, as the latest manifestation of this deeply ingrained Puritan heritage, environmentalism is as American as motherhood and apple pie. That is why it so obviously resonates powerfully with millions of Americans. In Europe as well, the environmental movement is strong in Germany, Holland, Sweden, and other countries with Protestant heritages. It does poorly in the Latin world.

To be sure, the Puritan heritage in American life has its up and down sides. The up side includes a strong moral vision, as in the battle against slavery. In asserting their own religious and other freedoms against oppressive governments, the Puritan faithful have often been fierce defenders of liberty and individual rights. However, the down side also appeared early on, when the Puritan majority hanged several Quakers on the Boston square who dared to challenge what there had become Puritan religious orthodoxy. If Puritanism has been the source of some of the highest ideals of American life, it has also been a source of fanaticism and repression.

In a Dark Wood provides yet another reminder that America's strong Puritan impulse does not mix well with government power. When the Puritan righteous among us get their hands on the levers of the state, the property and liberty of the rest of us are likely soon to be a trisk. The forest owners, timber workers, and mill owners in the Pacific Northwest unfortunately had to learn about this the hard way.

Robert H. Nelson (rnelson@puafmail.umd.edu) is a professor in the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland and senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics (Rowman and Littlefield).