The spotted owl wars in the forests of the Pacific Northwest have dragged on longer than America's shooting wars in the Middle East. And they may be just as far from any kind of lasting peace.
But chalk one up for the conservationists — and, just possibly, for the owls. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has published yet another critical habitat designation for the Northern Spotted Owl, increasing the Bush Administration's scientifically indefensible acreage by almost 90 percent, and earning qualified applause from environmental groups. Some conservationists complain that the FWS proposal contains roughly 4.2 million fewer acres than the agency proposed in a March draft.
Still, as they readily acknowledge, the new rule preserves more habitat than was envisioned by the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994. After the Bush administration spent two full terms trying to undercut that plan, restoring and even improving the status quo ante seems no mean accomplishment.
The original battle over saving the Northern Spotted Owl and the old-growth forests in which it lived was, of course, one of the bitterest and most significant environmental conflicts of the late 20th century. The owl was both a symbol of and surrogate for the old-growth coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest. Timber interests wanted to preserve their access to old-growth trees in the national forests. Environmental groups wanted to restrict their access. The owl was listed as threatened in 1990. The next year, U.S. District Judge William Dwyer enjoined all new federal timber sales in spotted owl habitat until the administration of George H.W. Bush complied with the nation's environmental laws.
That first Bush administration never did. Campaigning for the presidency in 1992, Bill Clinton promised that if elected, he would bring all interested parties together and hammer out a solution to the spotted owl problem.
True to his word, Clinton convened a "Northwest Forest Conference" in Portland the following April. The meeting included the president, the vice president, four cabinet secretaries, and representatives of timber towns, environmental groups, scientific disciplines, forest-products companies for a full day of conversation. The following year, his administration came out with the Northwest Forest Plan, which protected some 6.7 million acres of owl habitat and potential habitat. It was designed to protect not just owls, but also marbled murrelets, which had been listed as a threatened species in 1992, and hundreds of other species that depend on or are associated with old-growth forests, and was basically organized around the stream corridors vital to wild salmon runs. It was also designed — Clinton said in an ill-advised, pie-in-the-sky, something-for-everyone political statement — to let loggers cut a billion board feet a year in the national forests. Predictably, virtually no one liked it.
Environmentalists — who, a few years earlier, would have gladly settled for much less — complained that it didn't go far enough. Forest products companies — which had prospered, along with mill town economies, from an unsustainable logging binge in the late 1980s — complained that it went too far. But the plan survived lawsuits, Dwyer lifted his injunction, and life went on, kind of.
Arguably, the plan and the conference that preceded it represent high-water marks in this nation's attempts at ecosystem management and environmental statesmanship. And yet . . . the old timber economy hasn't come back. Neither have the owls.
And the litigation has never gone away.
The Northwest's national forests have never yielded anything close to that billion board feet. Some people had predicted up to 150,000 job losses in Washington, Oregon and northern California, with a lasting regional economic slump as a result. In fact, the regional economy and regional employment both grew. Outside certain small communities, the old timber economy sank without a ripple. As a 1999 study by three Oregon economists put it, "the sky did not fall."
In Grays Harbor County, historically a timber-dependent area with high unemployment — earlier this year, it had highest unemployment rate in Washington — the timber economy peaked in 1929. It's all been downhill since the start of the Great Depression. But the county depends less on timber than it once did. And, in fact, until the Great Recession started in 2008, its unemployment rate was lower in the new millennium than it had been before the forest plan.
Economics were only one part of the equation. Normally, the federal government would have adopted a recovery plan and designated critical habitat for the owl. It started the process — a draft plan came out in 1992, and the FWS designated 6.7 million acres — but the Forest Plan seemed to make a recovery plan moot, so the FWS never finished. Then Bush was elected — with the support of forest products industry executives — and his administration spent the next eight years trying to undercut his predecessor’s plan — or helping some forest products companies undercut it. The Bush administration said that Clinton had "promised" the Northwest a billion board feet a year, and it planned to make good on that promise.
The link between Bush actions and an industry wish list wasn't just conjecture. In 2003, a Freedom of Information Act request by Earthjustice uncovered a memo that laid out the wish list that the administration subsequently tried to follow. In order to boost logging to Clinton's billion board feet a year — actually 1.1 billion — industry executives wanted the administration to reduce habitat protection for the owl and the marbled murrelet, drop old-growth protection on BLM land in southern Oregon and northern California; scrap the Forest Plan's aquatic strategy, which was designed to protect salmon; and drop the requirement to "survey and manage" for the survival of fungi, invertebrates, and other species protected by the Forest Plan.
The Bush administration and its allies followed a pattern of "sue and settle." That is, an outside group would sue to challenge an environmental law or rule or policy, and rather than defend it, the administration would reach a settlement that gave the group what it wanted. In some cases, the plaintiffs were arguably just asking the administration to do what the law required. One such settlement led to a review of the owl's status. Status reviews are required every five years but the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't have the resources to do them that often. In the case of the owl, environmental groups feared that the administration would cook the science to say the owl was doing just fine, and would then try to de-list it.
Much to virtually everyone's surprise, the status review was scientifically sound — and it concluded that spotted owls were worse off than anyone had realized. Scientists had foreseen back in 1994 that the birds' population would continue to drop for decades, as some of the protected forest developed slowly into the kind of old-growth habitat the owls required. But the expected decline turned out to be more of an unexpected nosedive, especially in Washington state. While scientists had predicted an annual population loss of 1 percent, the average was closer to 4, and between the Canadian border and the Columbia River, it was more than 7.
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