William Faulkner got it right. Just ask a Northern spotted owl. "The past is never dead. It's not even past," Faulkner famously wrote in "Requiem for a Nun."
Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the Northwest Forest Plan, the Clinton administration document designed to save Northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, wild salmon and the many other critters that live in the Northwest's old-growth and mature federal forests. The federal Record of Decision was published on that date in 1994.
"I think it has been a success story," says Dominick DellaSalla, president of the Ashland, Ore.-based Geos Institute and of the Society for Conservation Biology's North American section.
"We were facing an ecological collapse," DellaSala says. The Northwest, he says, was "down to the last 15 or 20 percent of the old forests that were holding the whole system together." Without the plan, any older forests in the Northwest would by now be little more than a remnant.
The fight to save the Northern spotted owl — and the old-growth forests for which it became both a symbol and a surrogate — was perhaps the most significant environmental conflict of the late 20th century. It was repeatedly the headline enviro event in the Pacific Northwest, inspiring a logging truck protest in downtown Olympia, a rash of bumper stickers — "if it's hootin' I'm shootin'" — and an April 1993 conference that drew newly elected President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and five cabinet members to Portland.
The spotted owl nests and hunts in old growth forest. Because of the obvious implications for logging, the federal government tried to avoid listing the birds, but federal courts shot down government arguments and the owls were listed as threatened in 1990. A scientific committee headed by the Forest Service's senior wildlife biologist, Jack Ward Thomas, then recommended saving nearly 8 million acres of habitat. The next year, citing violation of the National Forest Management Act, U.S. District Judge William Dwyer blocked all timber sales in spotted owl habitat, which included nearly all Northwestern national forests.
In some people's eyes, we had reached Owlmageddon.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton pledged that if he were elected, he would hold a summit on the issue. After the Portland conference and the report from Thomas came out with a menu of alternatives designed to protect not only the owl but also the many other life forms with which it shared the woods, the administration sought political compromise. It chose a new option that would permit more logging than the scientists preferred.
"Option 9" became the Northwest Forest Plan. The next spring, the government issued its Record of Decision, and the plan went into effect.
Neither the industry nor the environmental community liked it — in fact, organizations on both sides sued — but the plan was good enough for Dwyer. At the end of 1994 — Owlmageddon hadn't occurred in the meantime — he lifted the injunction. Both industry and environmental groups said they were disappointed.
Neither the owl nor the forest products industry has done as well as some people had expected and many had hoped.
But, as a group of Northwestern economists observed in 1999, the sky didn't fall. Doomsday predictions of massive job losses proved false. Certain workers, mills, and communities felt pain. The Clinton administration's brave talk about retraining workers and reviving mill towns surprised virtually no one by proving to be largely hot air. Still, the Northwest economy didn't even hiccup.
And actually, says Andy Kerr, who attended the forest conference as a leader of the group now called Oregon Wild, "the industry has done fine." It has more capacity now than it did 20 years ago, albeit (just like other successful American manufacturing industries) fewer workers.
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