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Habitat Protection Doesn’t Hurt Logging Jobs, University Of Wisconsin Study Shows

Common knowledge doesn”t always square with the facts. Case in point: spotted owls and logging jobs in the Pacific Northwest.

“Everybody knows” that laws protecting a threatened species, the Northern Spotted Owl, have threatened another species the rural American logger. The problem is that logging jobs disappeared at a much faster rate before those laws were passed, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers” analysis of job losses in the national and Pacific Northwest logging industry.

“You have to look pretty carefully at what everybody ”knows,”” says Bill Freudenburg, a rural sociologist at the UW-Madison”s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “Sometimes the usual assumptions have everything going for them except the facts.”

The debate over environmental protection versus logging jobs has spiked three times: 1964, when the Wilderness Protection Act was passed; 1970 (Earth Day); and the spotted-owl era.

reudenburg sought a turning point in the record that is, a time when employment records showed that environmental-protection laws had cost jobs.

“We found no statistically believable evidence of a ”spotted owl” effect on logging jobs, and no evidence of an Earth Day effect. The only statistically believable change in employment trends came with the Wilderness Act of 1964. This was strongly significant statistically. The only catch was that it goes opposite the direction that everyone expected,” Freudenburg says. “The overall rate of job losses dropped by more than 90 percent during the era that started with the passage of the Wilderness Act.”

People sometimes speak of the “golden era” of logging, from just after World War II until 1964. In reality, logging jobs declined during this time.

“Both nationally and in the Pacific Northwest, the greatest decline in timber employment occurred from 1947 to 1964 a time of great economic growth, a general absence of ”unreasonable environmental regulations,” and growing timber harvests,” Freudenburg says.

“If golden era trends continued, there would have been no loggers left in the United States by 1990,” he says. “The net effect of the environmental protection era is the saving of about 500,000 jobs in the United States. In the Pacific Northwest, the net statistical effect of the environmental era, from 1964 to 1993, proves to be an increase of more than 51,000 logging and milling jobs, during the period when just the opposite was supposed to be happening.

“If there is a real connection between environmental protection and job loss, it doesn”t come from too much protection today. It comes from not having had enough environmental protection in earlier decades. Statistics show that by the early 1960s in the Pacific Northwest, just as in other logging centers, we”d chopped down all the big old trees, then shut down the mills that processed those big old trees,” Freudenburg says. “The process had run its course before the first of the ”job-killing” environmental laws were enacted.”

For example, a study showed that between 1948 and 1962, one-third of Oregon”s large sawmills closed. During that same time, more than 85 percent of the smaller sawmills closed. These smaller sawmills were usually located in the rural areas that are the focus of the spotted owl debate.

Because Freudenburg and his colleagues were particularly concerned about the impacts on small towns and rural areas, they limited the study to actual extraction of trees and the lowest level of processing sawing and planing mills. They used a standard statistical technique called regression analysis to look for effects. Employment figures, from 1947 to 1993, came from the U.S. Dept. of Labor and the state employment agencies of Washington and Oregon.

“The Pacific Northwest has been the nation”s logging capital for the last few decades, but it”s only the latest of many. They chopped down the big trees, and when they finished chopping them down, they shut down the mills. Most of that was done by the early 1960s. Even though trees are a renewable resource in principle, the rate at which old-growth trees were cut down wasn”t renewable,” Freudenburg says.

“If logging jobs have indeed been endangered by efforts to protect the environment in general and spotted-owl habitat in particular, what is needed is a plausible explanation of how the influence of the owls could have begun some 40 years before the species came under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.”

Freudenburg worked on this study with UW-Madison colleagues Lisa J. Wilson and Daniel J. O”Leary. He presented his findings Feb. 14 in Seattle, Wash., at the 1997 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.