Planet Earth News: Protecting the Northern Spotted Owl and Environmentally-Callused Pillagers

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PHOTO: ZIG LESCZYNSKI/ANIMALS ANIMALS
The spotted owl and Oregon's old-growth timber face a common (an all too common!) enemy.

Environmental planet earth news brief about a lawsuit to add the northern spotted owl to the endangered species list, and environmentally-callused pillagers.

Environmental Planet Earth News

The Pacific Northwest always seems to have noisy
environmental disputes under way–in state
legislatures, in the newspapers, in the courts, in better
saloons and taverns everywhere. A perennial topic is
forestry, and mid-1988 is no exception.

Much of the region has been heavily logged, to the point
that a flight over western Oregon, for example, reveals a
landscape that looks the way I did when, at the age of six,
my best friend offered to give me a free haircut. Large
patches have been skinned to reveal lumpy ground, devoid of
most everything but a few weeds. Regeneration of the trees
is painfully slow.

Environmentalists have struggled long and hard to find a
way to slow the clear-cut express. They have succeeded in
helping establish four national parks and several
wilderness areas in the 19 national forests in Oregon and
Washington. Still, the felling of
forests–particularly the valuable old-growth forests
where a single tree can provide $2,000 worth of
lumber–continues apace, even though perhaps only 10%
of the region’s original stock of old growth remains.

In recent years, a new player has emerged on the field of
debate, the northern spotted owl, considered by biologists
a reliable indicator of the health of old-growth forests in
general. The owl requires old-growth forests to survive,
for reasons that are not terribly well understood. What is
well understood is that as the forests have been leveled,
the population of spotted owls has crashed–to the
point where it is threatened with extinction, in the
considered opinion of every expert in the field.

Despite this fact, pleas to add the owl to the list of
threatened and endangered species have fallen on deaf ears,
undoubtedly because of the economic and political power of
the timber industry in the region. Having nowhere else to
turn, conservation groups have recently turned, once again,
to the courts.

Lawyers for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund filed a
lawsuit in early May against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service. The suit asks the court to order the federal
agency to add the northern spotted owl to the list of
threatened and endangered species. The case set off storms
of controversy.

Admittedly, the lawsuit is a drastic step,
and–assuming it succeeds, which it may or may
not–it may, indeed, impose short-term economic
hardships on some elements of the timber industry. The
organizations that brought the suit–including the
Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Oregon Natural
Resources Council, Headwaters and many Audubon Society
chapters in Oregon and Washington–understand this all
too well.

They are not, however–as charged by industry
spokespersons–a bunch of hardhearted zealots who love
birds more than people. Rather, they’re like the Audubon
Society official who once was asked if he liked birds or
people better. “I like people who like birds,” he answered.

In addition, they’re people who clearly understand the
following:

The spotted owl population in the Northwest has crashed
dramatically and alarmingly in the past few decades, and if
drastic steps aren’t taken quickly, it may be too late to
save the species. (In denying the groups’ petition to
“list” the species, the FWS relied on a study by a single
scientist who later accused the agency of misrepresenting
his work.)

Spotted owls depend on old-growth forests to survive.
Industry, in its wisdom, has eliminated virtually every
acre of old growth on private land in the Northwest. That
means that essentially all the habitat suitable for spotted
owls is on federal land.

Decisions on whether to add species to the endangered
species list are required by law to be based strictly on
biological science–not economics, not politics, not
whether a species is cute or cuddly. Fish and Wildlife
Service officials have acknowledged, however, that politics
and economics played a considerable role in their decision.
If that’s true, it’s illegal.

The timber industry in the Pacific Northwest has begun to
adjust to the post-old-growth era already, and it will have
to complete that transition expeditiously whether or not it
is allowed to mow down the last of the old growth and the
owls and other creatures with it. That means retooling
equipment in sawmills so they can handle smaller logs
efficiently. It means altering equipment used in the field
to handle the smaller, second-growth trees. It means, in
essence, putting the idea of cutting down thousand-year-old
trees out of mind, forever.

To repeat, this will happen soon anyway. If there were no
lawsuit, if there were no protestors installing themselves
in the tops of old trees in a desperate attempt to save
them, if there were no resistance whatever to logging old
growth, industry could keep cutting for only a handful of
years at most.

And when time ran out, except for the remnants now
protected in wilderness areas and national parks, the trees
would be gone, the owls would be gone, and the loggers and
the mills would be facing exactly the same situation they
will face if the suit succeeds.

The difference is that if the lawsuit succeeds, there will
be a small but respectable amount of primeval forest,
complete with spotted owls and a hundred other creatures,
to proudly show to our children and grandchildren. We’ll be
able to tell them we took the painful but necessary steps,
and we took them in time.

Tom Turner, a writer and editor who’s worked in the environmental field for 18 years, is with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, an independent environmental law firm that represents many organizations across the country. It is supported principally by private donations. For more information, write Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, San Francisco, CA.