Rachel Corrie & the Spotted Owl

A few days back – on March 16 to be exact – a young American college student was brutally killed as she tried to stop an Israeli army bulldozer from demolishing a Palestinian family home in Gaza strip. The driver saw Rachel Corrie, 23, as she stood in front of his earthmover in a bright-colored jacket yelling at him through a bullhorn, along with some other members of the International Solidarity Movement, to stop the destruction of a family home. Instead of stopping, the driver dropped a load of debris upon her, pushed her to the ground with the bulldozer’s blade and then drove the 52-ton vehicle over her body, not once but twice.

The media took pictures of the ghastly event, some of which have appeared in the American press too. The taciturn and almost indifferent attitude of the official quarters towards this tragic and revolting incident, contrasts sharply with the value placed by the American people at large on life of not just the humans but of all creatures.

Take the case of the spotted owl of America’s Northwest – California, Oregon and Washington. Although it has been off the news for some time now, it continues to haunt the giant logging companies. For, their operations could be stopped any time if some environmentalists noticed that the felling of trees was destroying the owl’s nesting area.

That is exactly what happened a decade back when a US District Judge stopped logging in the old-growth forests of the area which is the habitat of the spotted owl.

It was the decline of the spotted owl, noticed in early 1990s, that put it at the center of a controversy involving the government, the environmentalists, the land developers and builders, the logging companies and the officials concerned with forest fires. They kept pulling in different directions. Some argued that economic development should hold sway over all other considerations, others contended that the protection of environment and of natural habitats of various species was of paramount significance.

The owl would, meanwhile, sit in its high perch totally indifferent to the heat and bustle of human concern for him. Occasionally, it would flutter its wings and toot in a deep voice to call its mate to the nest so that it could be off to catch its prey, mostly some unwary mouse or an adventurous squirrel. The environmentalists would give whoops of joy on spotting the owl on the ecstatic flight back to its nest with the prey clutched tight in his claws.

The amusing controversy over the owl arose from a 1973 law passed by the US Congress. Titled the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it lays down that all species and even plants, facing the danger of becoming extinct, must be protected regardless of the economic cost. (The Act and its spirit do not, for obvious reasons, apply to the Palestinians despite their falling in the category of Endangered Species.)

Any American citizen or group can petition to the Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) to place a species on the endangered list. If the petition is rejected, the petitioner can sue the FWS. But, who wants to get entangled in litigation? The FWS has therefore added some 50 plants and animals to the list every year until recently.

The spotted owl was put on the list of endangered species in 1994. It has been prohibited since then to cut down trees 30 inches or larger in diameter since the owl selects for its nest the tallest trees for its nest. For the peace, comfort and privacy of the owl, the forest canopy covering 300-acre perimeters around known nesting areas is to be left totally undisturbed.

Many timber companies say they cannot afford to retool their mills to accommodate the smaller trees. This has put the timber industry in retreat. Some companies had to declare bankruptcy.

Unmindful of the havoc it has caused, the spotted owl selects the tallest and thickest trees for its habitat. The timber industry too depends for its survival on these very trees. In the conflict of interests, the spotted owl has clearly won the case with the environmentalists serving as its self-appointed attorneys.

The Endangered Species Act has caused havoc in the lives of farmers too. A few years back, it was reported that a farmer in Winchester, California, let us call him Joe, had struggled for years on his small farm to make ends meet for his family of wife and three children crammed into a one-bedroom house. Since his children were fast growing up, he felt he must add some more area to his residence. He had worked hard, suppressed many desires, and saved some money for the building material. He therefore applied to the concerned Department for the permit to add a couple of rooms to the house.

He received the shock of his life when he was informed that his request could not be approved as his land fell in the area classified as protected area for the Kangaroo rat. To protect this rat, no less than 78,000 acres of land, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, had been declared off-limit to the people who lived there. Since the rat was on the list of endangered species, any human activity that might constraint the freedom of the rodent could bring a prison sentence and as much as $100,000 in fines!

“For Sale” signs went up on many ranches in the area.

Joe was stunned to read the official rejection of his simple request. The only recourse, he was told, was to hire a biologist to survey his property, at a cost of up to $5,000. If even a single rat were found there, he would be out of luck. If the area was rat free, he could develop his property, provided he paid to the government “mitigation fees” totaling nearly $40,000 to buy an equivalent piece of land elsewhere for a rat preserve.

“That is ridiculous”, Joe said, “I can’t afford any of that.” So he and his family continued to live crammed in their tiny house.

Los Angeles Times of February 9 reported that cattle ranchers in the vicinity of the Mohave Desert are facing pressure to shift to other areas so that the endangered desert tortoise can live and thrive undisturbed.

One wonders if a Palestinian on the West Bank or in the Gaza strip, whose home is being razed to the ground to accommodate some settler, is receiving even an iota of the compassion shown to the spotted owl, the kangaroo rat, the desert tortoise and other endangered species!

The ruthless murder of Rachel Corrie answers the query.