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Forest Magazine Article: Who Won the Spotted Owl War?

Winter 2003
Who Won the Spotted Owl War?
By William Dietrich
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Photo © William Dietrich

When I took over the environmental beat of the Seattle Times in 1988, it wasn’t long before I was trying to persuade my editors that the declining population of an obscure bird, a spotted owl that none of us had ever seen, might be enough to shut down the Pacific Northwest’s biggest industry.

They laughed at me.

So in the historical context of looking back sixteen years, it seems obvious that the victors in the spotted owl war were those environmentalists who turned a seemingly absurd proposal into a national cause, a matter of presidential debate and finally a fait accompli. By the time the sawdust cleared, national forest harvesting west of the Cascades and the Sierra had declined by more than 80 percent—and more than 90 percent in key forests near the urbanized Puget Sound basin.

By the recent accounting of the Associated Press, nearly 7 million acres, or 28 percent of the national forest in western Washington, Oregon and northern California, were protected from logging by the Clinton administration’s 1994 Northwest Forest Plan. In addition, 4.6 million acres were open to logging, and of that, only 1.1 million acres were classified as old growth.

Compared to the assumptions of the 1970s that most old growth would be liquidated in order to grow younger, healthier forests, the extent of federal protection was a revolutionary change. Equally important, the entire culture of the U.S. Forest Service was being transformed. A new emphasis on ecological management meant that most harvest came to a screeching halt and that the federal government never came close to delivering the timber harvest that the 1994 compromise had promised. The timber beast was dead.

Even on nonfederal land, private industry began experimenting with new forestry techniques to minimize clear–cutting eyesores, and timber companies became more eager to trade or donate lands in sensitive population and highway corridors to avoid adverse publicity.

This sociological and scientific transformation was the subject of my book The Final Forest, an attempt to give an evenhanded account of a revolution still under way when it was published in 1992. Emotions were so pitched when the book appeared that initial reaction from both sides was one of betrayal, thanks to the book’s sympathy for their opponents. Since then, my version has been received more kindly by combatants, who have realized they lived through something historic and profound.

I was surprised when many environmentalists condemned the Clinton compromise in 1994, since to my mind it codified a paradigm shift in the way people saw national forests: no longer simply as a resource base, but as an ecosystem with biological, aesthetic and spiritual qualities as valuable as timber. By that time, activists had come so far so fast that they no longer wanted the armistice of World War I, they wanted the unconditional surrender of World War II.

They had a point. The armistice and Treaty of Versailles arguably seeded the still greater World War II, and the Clinton administration had chosen a middle option that left possible future conflict.

The timber industry could also declare victory in the spotted owl war by sustaining the principle that the national forests are not de facto wilderness areas or national parks, but remain a commercially harvested source of lumber and pulp. Logging declined, but it did not end, and old–growth preserves did not emerge with the magic inviolability of a Yellowstone or a Yosemite. Most of us sideline spectators remain ignorant about just where the protected acres are and what the heck is on them. There is an abstraction about the maps and statistics to most urbanites.

Neither, apparently, has the Northwest Forest Plan ended the decline of the spotted owl, a decrease now being blamed on the aggression of barred owls as much as on chain saws.

These conflicting interpretations of victory give rise to my first point, which is that neither side did win, or could win, the spotted owl war. This is a war that is unwinnable because as long as there are trees, and people who covet them, it is a war that will never end. Any timber policy or acreage designation is vulnerable to the next election, legislative repeal or national or ecological emergency.

We have had wrenching changes in attitude toward forests, not over the last twenty years, but the last 200. Why should that change? As scientific understanding advances and world population grows, the arguments of the two sides will only grow more urgent. Activists on either side who sign on for the duration know what they will be doing for the rest of their lives.

My second point is more subtle and insulting, but nonetheless necessary: the war was insignificant in a statistical sense. Though this is an affront to the grieving timber families and outraged environmentalists I interviewed, my point is that the acres saved, jobs lost and costs borne are relatively small on a regional and global scale. In that sense, my skeptical editors were right.

The U.S. economy has lost 2.7 million jobs since the recession began in 2001. The spotted owl war job losses, while never clearly counted, probably amounted to less than 1 percent of that. The decline of aerospace and high tech has had a far more profound impact on the Pacific Northwest economy, and mechanization has cost more timber industry jobs than any lawsuit.

On a continental or global basis there has been no dramatic shortage of timber due to the spotted owl; in fact U.S. industry has more frequently complained of oversupply from Canada. Lumber costs remain low compared to more manufactured products: in my remodeling projects, the cost of structural lumber is so low compared to finishes and appliances that it scarcely counts in considering whether I can afford it. Alan Greenspan and federal interest rate changes have had far more effect on the cost of my housing than Jack Ward Thomas and the spotted owl.

Deforestation has not stopped; it has shifted. Northwest environmental loss has not ceased; it is caused more by suburbanization or global warming than clear–cutting.

This is not to dismiss the importance of the war that was fought. It is simply to remember that even though a single tree might be worth several thousand dollars, or a threatened grove may have the beauty of a temple, any one fight in the Pacific Northwest is a skirmish in a global Armageddon of which the outcome is far from certain.

And that leads to my third and final point, which is seemingly contradictory to the first two. We all won the spotted owl war, and our victory was immensely important.

What happened in the woods was our country in its finest hour. Simply put, the system worked. Our society asked scientists to develop new information, took that information into the political and legal arena, and with a decorum that would have been unknown in the Wild West or less fortunate societies, made a democratic decision. We were adaptive.

Poll after poll showed that what the public wanted was what the politicians and agency heads finally did: they left the last old trees alone. This is not a win for one side or a loss for the other, but confirmation that when confronted with new facts and new needs, forest policy can change in an orderly and commonsense way. The miracle is not that it took so much time and so much shouting, or that the Forest Service was (and is) slow in its response, but that it responded: that we are not bound, or doomed, by the assumptions of earlier generations.

This process will undoubtedly continue. It is possible that research will show that old growth is more valuable than we dream. Or that disease, climate change, war, fire or some other calamity will make its harvest necessary. We may learn that old growth is replaceable, or, conversely, irreplaceable. What really counts is that we’ve established a tradition of taking such new findings to the woods, applying them, arguing them and modifying our course without bloodshed.

Who won the spotted owl war? Democracy.

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