Spotted owl or red herring?
High Country News
March 20th, 2006
by Kathie Durban
Pretty much everyone agrees that logging on federal lands in the Pacific Northwest has declined by 80 percent since its heyday in the mid-1980s. Job losses in the region’s timber sector over the past two decades number in the tens of thousands. But don’t blame the critical habitat rule, or even the Endangered Species Act.
In fact, the downsizing of the region’s timber industry was driven by many factors, including mill automation, log exports and the overcutting of private lands. The seeds of the industry’s demise were sown in the 1970s and 1980s, when timber companies, having cut their own old growth at unsustainable levels, put pressure on Northwest lawmakers to hike logging on federal land.
Near-record levels of federal logging came to a halt in 1989 with court injunctions meant to protect the northern spotted owl. But those lawsuits were brought under the National Forest Management Act, which requires the Forest Service to assure the viability of vertebrate species on national forest land. And even before that, forest plans prepared for the 1990s already called for sharp logging reductions to slow the decline of fish, wildlife, soils and streams.
It’s true that the owl has played a central role in forest management in the Pacific Northwest, but the critical habitat rule was a bit player in this drama.
In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the owl a threatened species, conferring ESA protection on a bird whose range spanned tens of millions of acres of federal land across California, Oregon and Washington. The agency held off on designating critical habitat for the owl, saying it needed to do more research. But environmentalists, who had petitioned for the owl’s listing, sued again in 1991, to force the agency to give the owl’s habitat legally binding protection under the critical habitat rule. A federal judge ruled in their favor.
The Service’s first rough maps, released that spring, were a public relations disaster. They carved out 190 large blocks of the Northwest’s most productive older forests, covering 11.6 million acres of public and private land, an area larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined. In their haste, mapmakers included parking lots and other developed areas in the owl reserves. Timber communities exploded.
Timber companies were incensed as well; the first draft included 3 million acres of private land. George Weyerhaeuser, president and chief executive officer of timber giant Weyerhaeuser Co., went to Washington, D.C., in late July of 1991 and met with members of the Northwest delegation and top officials in the administration of George H.W. Bush. Critical habitat designation, he said, would shut down logging on 190,000 acres out of the 2.9 million acres the company owned in Oregon and Washington. Two weeks later, the Service dropped all private timberland, all Indian reservation land and some state land — 3.4 million acres in all — from consideration. The final rule, published in January 1992, whittled critical habitat protection to 6.9 million acres.
Agency economists at the time predicted that critical habitat protection would cost only about 2,500 more jobs than an owl conservation plan already in effect. The estimate might well have been accurate, but we’ll never know, because critical habitat was never actually implemented.
Instead, U.S. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan invoked the "God Squad," a process under the ESA that allows a panel of Cabinet-level officials to overrule the act’s protections. The process, political from the outset, ended in a debacle and opened no owl habitat to logging.
The injunctions remained in place until 1994, when the Clinton administration adopted the Northwest Forest Plan, a landmark blueprint that aimed to protect habitat on federal land for the owl, the marbled murrelet and wild Pacific salmon while providing enough timber to keep some mills open (HCN, 9/27/04: Life after old growth). A federal judge ruled that the Northwest Forest Plan adequately protected these species and their critical habitat. But it did not cover state and private lands. And though it called for spending $1 billion over five years on economic assistance to timber towns, job retraining and watershed restoration projects, Congress never fully funded those programs to help the region through a painful transition.
Occasional lawsuits, brought under state forest practices laws, have served as reminders to private timber companies that, even in these times of environmental rollbacks, they cannot ignore the owl altogether. Meanwhile, owl numbers continue to decline.