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In writing my recent continuing series on the proposed coal shipping terminals in the Pacific Northwest, my mind inevitably wandered to the age-old accusation that Conservatives are opposed to science and uninterested in protecting the environment. I find that personally amusing, given my Bachelor's degree in Zoology and a lifelong commitment to conservation and the outdoors, that happen to jibe perfectly with my lifelong commitment to free markets and individual liberty. But the evidence is overwhelming - Conservatives are decidedly in favor of science, human progress and conservation. What we oppose is junk science and hysteria masquerading as scholarship in the name of policies that would limit our personal liberty.
Several examples from the current fight over coal trains in the northwest highlight the junk science and hysteria of the left - but I was also reminded of the example of the Spotted Owl. I graduated college in Connecticut in 1993, and remember hearing a lot about the threatened (note: not endangered) status of the Northern Spotted Owl and the evils of clear-cutting. The theory advanced at the time was that it was dying off because of habitat reduction - clear-cutting was destroying the old growth forests that were the only habitat in which it could survive. The science was settled, as Al Gore might say - the consensus was beyond doubt that the only way to save this species was to end the practice of clear-cutting in old growth forests. Never mind that thousands of families in Oregon would lose their income! We had an owl to save! So, a federal court order in 1991 halted all clear-cutting of old growth forests on federal land in the Northwest, reducing timber harvests by 80% and effectively destroying the economy and tax base in rural Oregon counties that relied almost exclusively on this industry.
Well, fast forward a couple of decades. While rural counties in Oregon are largely dependent upon federal subsidies to offset lost timber income just to provide basic services like roads and jails, the Northern Spotted Owl is still threatened, with populations declining.
Wait, what? I thought science saved the Spotted Owl!
Evidently the science wasn't settled after all. In 2004, the US Fish and Wildlife Service changed the reasoning behind keeping the Northern Spotted Owl on the Threatened list. Oh it's still threatened, but it turns out that they are unable to compete with an invasive species, the Barred Owl.
On top of all that, it turns out that clear-cutting might actually be good for the Spotted Owl. See, now this is where I start to get irritated. Junk science was accepted as gospel for 30 years, and only now are new studies showing that the Spotted Owl doesn't need old growth forest habitats to thrive:
Efforts to model forest succession and likely NSO (Northern Spotted Owl) responses in dry forests under several management scenarios suggest a bleak scenario for owl habitat within the <10 yr window described by the 2011 revised recovery plan. In the short-term or at small spatial scales it is argued that forest-health type thinning would likely result in a decrease in available owl habitat even when compared to habitat lost through catastrophic wildfire during the same time period. After several decades, however, the forests treated silviculturally were considered to have more NSOs than those not treated. A majority of federal scientists now caution, despite acute short-term pressures facing NSOs, that successful management and restoration of dry forests will require a long-term, landscape or eco-regional perspective that involves active silviculture.
For you flatlanders, active silviculture = managing, thinning and maintaining forest lands so that they do no become choked with underbrush and too many trees. The full report of silviculture options is pretty intersting, and can be seen here, on page 16. The fact that the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service still relies on outdated junk science in their NSO Recovery Plan defies all logic and, well, science. Active silviculture means being a good steward of the land - in other words, the ultimate in conservation.
But we all know that junk science is used to push a lot of really awful policy. Whether it be Michael Mann's debunked hockey-stick graph that is worthy of ridicule, to the IPCC having been busted in actively promoting falsified data to support global warming claims that could otherwise not be proven, to the current deliberate misrepresentation of coal dust by taking pictures of trains carrying coke - a product that wouldn't be shipped through the Pacific Northwest under the current coal terminal proposals - junk science is rampant in public policy.
I have a new rule of thumb. If a public policy claims to be based in science, and proposes to curtail my personal freedom to move about as I choose; consume products as I see fit; utilize the healthcare system directly with my doctor instead of allowing my privacy to be breached by bureaucrats; or any other transaction that I choose to undertake, I'm just going to assume that the science backing that policy has been manufactured to generate the politicians' desired results. Experience has shown that this is a safe assumption.