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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.
The numbers looked bleak enough. And the owl was threatened in ways no one had envisioned in 1994: Invasive barred owls were displacing northern spotted owls way more than scientists had predicted. Sudden Oak Death, moving up the coast from California, posed an unknown risk to forests in which the birds lived. West Nile Virus, borne by birds and fatal to some species, might directly threaten the owls' survival. And then, of course, there was climate change, and the increased risk of big forest fires to which hotter, drier summers contributed.
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