Delving into the impact of the spotted owl


The same week that the public comment period ended on the new federal spotted owl plan, The News-Review in Roseburg, Ore., did a seven-part series on the impact of the listing of the spotted owl 20 years ago.

The series is illuminating, describing everything from death threats and lost jobs to how the city of Roseburg and Douglas County have tried to keep themselves going in recent years with new businesses and new ideas.

Unfortunately the News-Review this week just started a subscription-only model for its website, so the stories can’t be read in their entirety for free. But the series is well worth the $4.95 for a one-week subscription to the paper.

What is most striking about the series is the devastation that the spotted owl listing wrought on the timber-dependent community — and how fresh the wounds still are 20 years later.

Just take a look at some of the statistics reported by the paper:

Between 1988 and 1998, the number of lumber and plywood mills in Oregon declined by nearly half, from 252 to 127. Twenty mills closed in Douglas County alone, according to timber consultant Paul Ehinger of Eugene. Some 2,800 jobs in the wood-products industry in Douglas County vanished within two years of the owl being listed.

More than half of the 60,000 Oregon workers who held jobs in the wood-products industry at the beginning of the 1990s no longer had them by 1998, according to a report published in the Journal of Forestry in 2003.

By the end of the decade, nearly half of those who left the timber industry disappeared from state employment records. The missing workers were likely either retired, unemployed or living in another state.

Jim Geisinger, the (Douglas Timber Operators) executive director from 1976 to 1981 and now the executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, said that in the early ’80s, the Umpqua National Forest sold 360 million board feet a year.

“Today, Umpqua National Forest is selling only about 10 percent of that,” he said.

A study by economists from the Portland-based consulting firm ECONorthwest, Oregon State University and the Oregon Employment Department tracked 18,000 former timber workers between 1990 and 1998 who found another job in Oregon. Nearly half found work in the service and retail sectors. One-third were employed in the manufacturing and construction industries.

The spotted owl listing impacted more than just job numbers — it affected lives. The bitterness was unleashed and received by both sides.

Probably the ugliest manifestation of the community’s anger came in the form of death threats to a variety of people.

Robert Heilman, a Myrtle Creek-based essayist and former laborer, said half-humorously the death threats seemed to follow a pattern.

“It struck me as odd at the time. Local environmentalists were getting (threatening) phone calls, and local timber people were getting letters from Lake Forest Park, Washington, and Garberville, California,” said Heilman, author of “Overstory Zero: Real Life in Timber Country.” “Timber people do hate by phone calls and environmental people by mail.”

Even after two decades, the bad feelings are still strong. Residents are understandably still reeling from the loss of their livelihoods, their traditions and their lifestyles.  The environmentalists, meanwhile, are unapologetic, even though the spotted owl listing has done absolutely nothing to save the spotted owl.

Heilman finds it difficult to say what the community has learned at this juncture, 20 years after the turmoil generated by a shy, forest-dwelling bird.

“In the short run, there’s an awful lot of anger out there still,” he said. “I’m optimistic in the long run … but history tells me that fundamental change takes a long time.”