"Jobs v. environment": the false dichotomy

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Gaylord Nelson drafted this letter to the editor of the New York Times to reflects his frustration at the mainstream media's standard portrayal of economic growth and environmental protection as mutually exclusive.

Nelson wrote at an optimistic moment when a Democratic victory ended 12 years of Republican administrations, which had rendered anemic many of the legislative victories of the "environmental decade." He attempted to return complexity to what had become a debate simplified to the point of parody.

In 1990, a global recession - the aftershock of the 1987 savings-and-loan crisis - cast a pall over environmental debates in the U.S. The deep frustrations of portions of the nation's shrinking and heavily subsidized manufacturing sector were enraged when faced with the prospect of further regulation. Mindful of this, President Bush placed a moratorium on any new regulatory action during 1992, at the same time that environmental organizations worked to protect the mature forests of Oregon and Washington by adding the northern spotted owl, which made its home there, to the Endangered Species list. The cartoonish version of the conflict that persisted in the storm of national coverage cast lumberjack against owl.

Specifically, Nelson tried to recast owls and forests as resources of not merely aesthetic or moral worth, but material worth. He insists in this letter the natural world is "the accumulated capital resources of the nation," a position he held since his days as a Wisconsin governor arguing for land preservation that would bolster Wisconsin's recreation industry.

Though the Times did not publish this letter, they printed one Nelson wrote the following May, in which he recommended the end of government subsidies to lumber companies. "A tree left in the ground had more value to the local economy than riding out on a logging truck," he contends.

After this letter was written, Nelson's position was supported by the Clinton administration. An outspoken supporter of protecting the spotted owl, wildlife biologist Jack Ward Thomas, was named by Clinton to head the National Forest Service. And new EPA chief Carol Browner (later appointed by President Obama to serve as Energy Coordinator) worked with Clinton to preserve the woodlands of the Pacific Northwest while also infusing the region with one billion dollars to fund the development of new industries.