What spotted owl?

2010-06-29 Ashley Bach

It was 20 years ago — June 26, 1990 — that the spotted owl was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Oregonian has taken an in-depth look at what that decision has meant for the timber industry and the spotted owl itself. The results, especially for the industry, are not pretty, and environmental groups might have a few things they’d rather forget too.

As this graphic shows, the owl listing ended up cutting Oregon’s total timber harvest in half. And the Northwest timber industry was decimated.

Here is a description from Jonathan Raban’s op-ed this week in the New York Times:

(In 1994) the Northwest Forest Plan came into effect, protecting around 20 million acres of federal land from logging, and offering financial compensation and job retraining to the timber towns. As mill after mill closed, the stench of steam and pulp vanished from the Northwestern air; trucks carrying massive tree trunks, which used to cause mile-long tailbacks on the Olympic Peninsula, became rarities; and the ubiquitous slow-moving tugboats, dragging rafts of freshly felled firs, gradually faded from view on Puget Sound.

Raban, whose op-ed is generally supportive of the owl’s listing, said the sting still lingers in timber communities:

The battle over the owl has been just one engagement in the war over nature in the Northwest…The struggle has set class against class and countryside against city, and turned lifelong rural Democrats into staunch Republicans.

In the old timber towns, many people still echo the August 1994 speech by Slade Gorton, Republican of Washington, to the Senate on the human cost of the spotted owl listing: “The U.S. government, driven by sophisticated, well-financed national environmental organizations and supported by the media and urban opinion leaders, has betrayed rural communities and destroyed — yes, destroyed — the lives and careers of tens of thousands of honest working families in the Pacific Northwest.” Or, as the city attorney for Forks, Wash., (once a roaring town that declared itself the Logging Capital of the World) said when I called to remind him of last week’s anniversary: “That’s not a day we celebrate. At any time.”

And yet — this is the real kicker — all sides of the debate agree that the listing has done nothing to improve the spotted owl’s numbers from 20 years ago. In fact, after two decades of the owl being federally listed as “threatened,” there are actually fewer spotted owls than there were in 1990.

How can this possibly be? The absurdity of the situation is almost comical if it wasn’t so painful. The reason — and apparently no one anticipated this 20 years ago — is a larger, more efficient species called the barred owl has migrated to the Pacific Northwest from the East and is squeezing out the spotted owl population. In the Olympic National Forest, for example, researchers counted just 13 spotted owls last year, whereas in 1990 they counted 150.

There is obviously some morbid satisfaction in finding out that many of the arguments from environmental groups 20 years ago about saving the spotted owl now ring hollow. But it’s more instructive to take away lessons that can be used today. Raban notes that the environmental groups’ fight in support of the spotted owl was really about control of old-growth forests. The owl was just a means to an end, the environmentalists’ “best available legal tool,” Raban says.

This is why it’s so important for the timber industry and timber communities to continue to fight for the benefits of vibrant and dynamic working forests. Some of the details may not matter in the end, but the larger principles at stake will decide the future of the timber industry as we know it.