Many people know that the northern spotted owl stopped the cutting of old-growth forests, but few people know why. In the late 1980s, the Fish & Wildlife Service listed the spotted owl as a threatened species because it relies on old-growth forests, which were rapidly being cut, as its habitat. This contributed to a huge decline in timber harvests from federal lands after 1990.
Fish & Wildlife Service photo.
The spotted owl is a predator whose main prey are northern flying squirrels, red-backed voles, and other species that mainly live in old-growth forests. But the spotted owl is not the stop of the food chain: it is preyed upon by the great grey owl, which especially goes after undefended juveniles and eggs. When given the opportunity, the great grey will swoop down on spotted owl nests, knocking the eggs or young out of the nests, and then feeds on them on the forest floor.
To protect its young, the spotted owl builds its nests in the forks of trees. It picks forks that are broad enough for the spotted owl to fly through but too narrow for the larger great grey owl. For a tree to grow such a fork, it must have grown for a long time, then have its top broken off by lightning or some other cause, then have two side branches grow up to create the fork. This can take hundreds of years, which is why spotted owls require old-growth forests for their nests. They might be seen in young-growth forests, but they do not successfully nest there.
There are many other important ecological relationships in old-growth forests. For example, red-backed voles eat truffles they find under the ground in the forests. Those truffles are the sporing bodies of a fungus that forms a symbiotic relationship with the roots of Douglas-fir trees. This mycorrhizal fungus gathers much of the moisture and nutrients needed by the trees, while the trees do the photosynthesis that produces nutrients that the fungus cannot get from the soil.
Unlike mushrooms, truffles don’t pop up above ground. Instead, their spores are distributed through the forest by the red-backed voles that eat the truffles and pass the spores through their feces.
There are literally billions if not trillions of similar stories about how ecosystems work. The interesting thing is that there are no planners in any of these stories. Instead, the ecosystems and all the characters in them work by themselves, for their own purposes.
The July issue of National Geographic tells some of these stories in an article about swarm behavior. “No one’s in charge” of a colony of 500,000 ants, says the magazine. “No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all.”
Individual ants themselves, the article points out, are “inept.” It is the colonies that are smart. The article goes on to describe the “intelligence” of swarm behavior among bees, caribou, and other herd and colony animals. “If you’re looking for a role model in a world of complexity,” the magazine concludes, “you could do worse than to imitate a bee.”
Curiously, the magazine implies that such spontaneous order arises from complexity only among “swarms.” But, in fact, as the spotted owl story indicates, spontaneous order is found throughout natural ecosystems, and central planning exists nowhere in such systems.
Environmentalists and ecologists love to marvel about how well ecosystems work. Economies are as complex as ecosystems. So why do people so often turn to planning rather than spontaneous order when trying to manage economies? I could speculate about the answer to this question, but my real point is that our first choice for solving any complex problem should be through spontaneous order rather than planning.
One of the findings of complexity and chaos theory is that very simple initial rules can produce very complex results. We have a pretty good idea of what initial rules are needed to make economies work: allocation and enforcement of tradable property rights, a trading system with low transaction costs, and for especially valuable properties such as land and homes titling system that keeps track of ownership.
Most environmental problems, such as water, air, and wildlife, involve resources for which there are no tradable property rights. When a traded resource (such as timber) threatens a non-traded one (such as spotted owls), we tend to blame the traded resource. Instead, the problem is lack of trade. Instead of using planning and regulation to solve such problems, we need to find ways to bring the non-traded resources into the trading economy.
Update — Today’s Oregonian reports that the northern spotted owl is going extinct despite the cessation of logging in Northwest forests. The reason is that another owl, the barred owl, is invading the spotted owl’s range.
Some people have said that the barred owl was the reason for the spotted owl’s decline in the first place, and that it had nothing to do with the cutting of old-growth forests. But this is an oversimplification.
Barred owls are similar to spotted owls in many ways: both live in old growth, both are preyed upon by great greys. But barred owl females are larger than the males, while spotted owl sexes are both the same size. The male and female barred owls can feed off of different prey bases, and so don’t need as many acres of old growth to survive and mate as spotted owls.
Apparently, when Northwest forests were blanketed in tens of millions of acres of unbroken old growth, the spotted owl was able to hold its own. But now that most of the old growth is cut, and what is left is fragmented, the barred owl has an advantage.
It would be sad if the spotted owl went extinct, but even if it did, that doesn’t mean cutting can begin on the rest of the old-growth forests. The spotted owl was only the best known of more than 180 different species that depend on old growth for their survival.