Unintended Consequences

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We’re drawn to playing God. We like the way it looks on us. We love that little rush of omnipotence. Alas. In truth, we’re not qualified for the job.

Better to remember that when we decide to start running the world — especially the natural world — we should flip to the Beatitude, as in “blessed are the meek.”

That’s one lesson you can draw from the mess we’ve made of managing the ponderosa pine forests we love so dearly. Consider the perplexing findings about the U.S. Forest Service’s effort to safeguard the remaining Northern goshawks, agile hunters who like to nest in old-growth trees and seek their rodent prey beneath the branches of the pines.

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USFWS

Northern Goshawk

Biologists thought they knew exactly what goshawks needed: Clusters of giant, old-growth trees and certain types of nearby underbrush rustling with squirrels, mice, rabbits and other tasty goshawk tidbits.

Sounds reasonable. So the Forest Service wrote the guidelines into its forest plan, requiring that all thinning projects, controlled burns, grazing permits and timber sales consider how to provide more such habitat for the beleaguered raptors.

Long after those guidelines were set in the stone of the forest plans and made the object of bewildering lawsuits, some researchers from Northern Arizona University decided to prove the obvious: Goshawks fledge more youngsters when nesting in forest patches that match the guidelines.

Surprise. Surprise.

Turns out, first of all, that very few patches of forest match those guidelines because loggers long ago cut down most of the old-growth trees — leaving thickets of little trees behind. Once, such big trees dominated the forest. Now, they constitute less than 3 percent of the stems.

But wait: That’s not the surprise. Here it comes: The closer the areas around the nest sites approached the Forest Service’s goshawk guidelines — the fewer little goshawks the nesting pairs actually produced.

Now, this certainly doesn’t mean goshawks don’t rely on old-growth forests. It doesn’t even mean that the guidelines aren’t useful. But it does mean we ought to remain very humble about our ability to dictate how nature ought to behave.

You’d think we’d have learned that by now — given that a century of knuckle-headed fire suppression and careless over grazing has produced an unhealthy, tinderbox forest.

But despite the stubbornness of facts, we still don’t insist on making public policy based on solid evidence and careful measurements of the inevitable, unintended consequences. That works for helping goshawks, managing forests, reforming health care, enacting tax breaks, regulating pollutants, changing immigration laws, invading countries, overhauling Medicare, saving the housing market — you name it.

Granted, we don’t see much evidence of either humility or logic among politicians lately. But we’re hoping that voters will eventually insist.

After all, if goshawks have proven so hard to predict — we’d best tread lightly.

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