The Last Stand

Twenty years ago, an extraordinary effort by environmentalists saved the northern spotted owl – or did it?


What does the owl’s plight say about the uneasy relationship between environmentalism and conservation?

Marsh Trib is a small forest about 12 miles north of Roseburg, in southern Oregon. Owned by the Bureau of Land Management, it is hardly pristine – the edges of the plot are dense with second-growth Douglas fir – but a few hundred yards past the last logging road the woods are more mature, with large cedars and firs and hemlock. A small but vigorous creek cascades down a ravine. Pacific wrens burble in the understory, among flitches of fern, hidden from the kwark-ing ravens overhead. Otherwise, though, the old growth is quiet.

Janice Reid, a biologist with the US Forest Service, has brought me to Marsh Trib to see a regional celebrity, albeit one that is a bit washed-up. Since 1985, she has studied the northern spotted owl in the BLM’s Tyee District, in Douglas County, which is, as she puts it, “spotted owl mecca.” And here on Marsh Trib, a pair has nested for the past couple of years. But so far this season, Reid has only come across the male, so today she and I are going to check and see whether we can’t find his mate, if he has one.

drawing of an owl, words, the owl as a galvanizing symbol a potent force for environmental activism has been lostIllustration by Lisel Ashlock

As we walk, Reid will occasionally stop and hoot, stop and hoot. The call of the northern spotted owl – hooo… hoo-hoo… hoo – has a peculiar congested quality that requires some mandibular precision. Reid learned to imitate it from Jerry Mires, a retired BLM biologist known to the owl aficionados of Douglas County as the King of Hooters. Like his, her rendition is all but indistinguishable from the real thing, but so far there is no sign of the male. She pulls out a large digital recorder that looks like a huge flashlight and plays another of the owl’s calls, a long, drawn-out, eerie screech. Still nothing. “This guy is usually over pretty quick to check us out,” she says. “Maybe he’s feeling shy today.”

We hike deeper into the forest. “There’s nothing like the spotted owl,” she had told me earlier. “They’re so easy to work with. They come to you. They interact.” She and her colleagues have put together one of the most robust databases in the country – on any species – and they needed it when the lawyers came calling, which they often did in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “If we don’t know something about the owl by now,” she says, “we’re not going to know it.” These days, though, her work, while certainly not insignificant, has lost its political urgency of yore; the owl has been superseded. More than two decades since the Timber Wars in the Pacific Northwest, Reid sometimes wonders what changed. A lot of the controversies are the same. The owl is still rare. The forests in which it lives are still disappearing, although not to the degree that they were before. But the concerns of most environmentalists today, for better or worse, now go far beyond a single bird species in one patch of forest.

Still, Reid pushes on, through brush, under fallen logs. She stops and hoots, stops and hoots.

A refresher, for those who might have forgotten: The spotted owl was – is – a small and rather nondescript bird that lived – lives – in, whenever possible, large tracts of Pacific Northwest old growth, where it feeds mostly on three species of small rodent. By the early 1970s, when the owl, its habits, and its dire straits were just beginning to be known, almost all the old growth on private land was gone, and what little was left in federal holdings was disappearing fast. Throughout the 1980s, old growth in national forests was cut at a rate of about 70,000 acres per year; in 1987 alone, 5.6 billion boardfeet were harvested in Oregon and Washington.

As the forest went, so too the owl. Its population declined by about 4 percent annually in parts of its range. In response, packs of eco-activists swarmed into the Pacific Northwest. “The environmental movement was really starting to come into its own then,” says Eric Forsman, the Forest Service biologist most responsible for bringing the owl into the public eye. “And here was this owl that needed their help.”

The tamer advocates dressed up as trees and staged rallies; the more combative chained themselves to trees and blockaded logging roads. Loggers and their allies responded with recipes for spotted owl soup and defiant hauls of enormous logs. At local bars, forest activists and loggers traded threats and insults. Owls were hanged in effigy, then eventually just hanged. (Spotted owls are quite tame. It is possible to walk right up to one and almost touch it.)

Then, on June 23, 1990, the owl was officially listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), compelling the federal government to designate millions of acres of old growth as its critical habitat. The owl became an enigmatic paradox: The more birds found on surveys, the more protection was needed; the fewer found, the more land set aside for them. The Forest Service tried to keep leasing timber areas before a final conservation plan could be written and the land put off-limits. But in 1991, a federal judge ordered a halt to all sales of old-growth timber on federal lands in Oregon and Washington. In an attempt to coax the aggrieved parties into some sort of compromise, President Clinton convened a timber summit in Portland, Oregon, in 1993, but the definition of critical habitat did not lend itself to nuance. No raptor has been studied in greater depth than the spotted owl, and its needs were well documented. So, in 1994, the Northwest Forest Plan sealed off more than 20 million acres of national forests from logging. Loggers were offered job retraining and financial compensation, but it was cold comfort. Employment in the Pacific Northwest’s timber towns had already been declining – increases in mechanization and timber imports from abroad meant that fewer people were needed in local mills. The owl listing effectively finished the timber business off in many places.

But saving the forest and saving the owl turned out to be two very different propositions. Twenty-one years and more than $500 million later, populations of the owl are declining faster than ever. This baffles biologists and irritates politicians. Doug Robertson, the Douglas County Commissioner, has proposed selling half of the 2.3 million acres of public land within county lines to logging companies and leaving the rest for the owl. “Maybe we ought to take the 15 to 18 years that the Northwest Forest Plan has been in place and set it aside and try this plan for 15 years and see if this is any better,” he told the News-Review last December.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” says Janice Reid, of what she sees as the willingness to forsake the owl, and its apparent inability to recover. Although she says the causes of the decline are still uncertain, biologists have turned to a new suspect: the barred owl, the spotted owl’s larger, more aggressive cousin. Formerly restricted to eastern North America, it has expanded its range to western North America in the last century. Along the way, it muscled out the spotted owl. Although evidence of direct antagonism is largely circumstantial, a recent analysis headed by Forsman showed that the presence of the barred owl correlates with declines or absences of spotted owls.

More damning still is that when the barred owl leaves an area, or is removed, spotted owls are quick to return. Federal agencies are tentatively toying with the idea of a cull. A pilot project carried out on private land in California had, as Reid says, “encouraging results, if you can stomach the thought of shooting one owl to save another. Which a lot of people have problems with.”

Not that the spotted owl is really on anyone’s radar anymore. Aside from a brief flurry of media mentions in 2008, when a federal judge tossed out a Bush administration species recovery plan for its rather too obvious dismissal of science, the controversy has cooled. This vexes Forsman. Issues surrounding the stewardship of natural resources certainly haven’t gone away.

What good is it trying to save an owl when the planet is dying? With climate change, animal stories have a way of sounding tinny and absurd.

But “Save the Owl!” isn’t the rallying cry that it used to be, and this speaks to a much larger and more difficult question: What is the role of species-driven conservation in twenty-first-century environmental politics? Or is there even one?

When I ask Forsman if the ESA has worked for the spotted owl, he laughs a little ruefully and says, “Not really.” But the spotted owl isn’t the only species that has been slow to bounce back. At last count, 1,967 species are listed as either threatened or endangered under the ESA. Every year, more than $1 billion is spent on recovery plans and habitat preservation for those species. All the while, the ranks of the imperiled only expand. In the past four years, conservation groups have filed petitions on behalf of more than 1,200 species. (Decisions will be made on less than 5 percent of those, however.) Even for one not inclined to froth at government incompetence, it is hard to get around the fact that the number of open cases far exceeds the number of closed ones, spectacular though those are: the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, the gray whale (maybe), the gray wolf (well, maybe not). Most attempts to save a species are done, not exactly in vain, but certainly without any hope of immediate success.

Part of the lag is due to the nature of the law itself. “The ESA is not a proactive piece of legislation,” says Jon Hoekstra, director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy. “Its power comes from prohibition. It’s really, really good at stopping people from doing bad.” As such, for a species to fall within its jurisdictional purview, usually a lot of bad has to have been done, and so naturally that species might be expected to take a while to recover.

But a shift in environmentalist aims might also account for the gap between the ESA’s aspirations and its accomplishments. Consider: The spotted owl was tailor-made for the ESA as envisioned, and the 1990 listing played out in the classical style of such disputes. On one side, Nature: the humble owl and its fervid champions, guardians of ancient forests as sacred as they were ravaged. On the other, Man: the timber towns in Oregon and Washington, where livelihoods were inextricably linked to the harvest of boardfeet, and people had grown accustomed to untrammeled access to federal lands. It was, in hindsight, the last stand of older dualisms, of conservation in black and white.

But what good is it trying to save an owl now when the planet is dying? With climate change as the Principal Environmental Concern of Our Time, animal stories have a way of sounding tinny and absurd. They expose the limits of the traditional conservation narrative. Recent efforts to list the polar bear, the walrus, and the wolverine within its framework, for instance, have all failed. Federal managers determined that listing each species was “warranted but precluded for lack of resources.” This is a key development. The data are not in dispute, after all. In the case of polar bears, scientists are perfectly willing to acknowledge that climate change leads to a loss of sea ice, and that polar bears certainly need sea ice. But no one knows how even to begin to save an animal or a plant from a carbon molecule. Putting a halt to the logging of a particular age of tree on so many acres of land is one thing. Trying to compel the overhaul of an economy lubricated almost entirely by fossil fuels for the sake of nanook? Quite another.

“I don’t think the ESA should be taken seriously as a vehicle for addressing climate change,” Hoekstra says. “To try to use it would break the act. Climate change is more of an environmental issue. Its impacts are largely on people: health, food supply, water supply, infrastructure. These are probably of greater consequence than the impacts of climate change on species. There just isn’t the same level of risk, in terms of conservation.”

Hoekstra’s distinction gets to the root of a subtle schism between conservation and environmentalism, namely that, although they often desire similar goals, the two are hardly synonymous. The divide is old. In his 1987 book, Beauty, Health, and Permanence, historian Samuel P. Hayes noted that the conservation movement did not care much about animals in the first place. Its aim instead was the more efficient use of natural resources – mainly forests – and it was principally top-down, driven by the Progressive Era politics of Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and their ideas of scientific management. It was, in short, about process.

Environmentalism, on the other hand, was about place. It was bottom-up, grassroots. It involved, as Hayes writes, “public values that stressed the quality of human experience and hence the human environment.” In the early twentieth century, what was meant by “the environment” – the experience desired by the likes of John Muir and his disciples – was an idea of wilderness and the aesthetic resources it contained. Forests shouldn’t be managed for timber, as the conservationists argued. No. Forests should be left alone, untouched.

Then, during the 1960s and 1970s, conservation and environmentalism were, in a sense, legislatively conflated. On the environmentalist slate, the Clean Air Act (1963), the National Environmental Protection Act (1969), and the Clean Water Act (1972) were all signed into law. Clear skies, rivers that didn’t catch on fire – all of these attributes of wilderness were brought closer to humans. Conservation, meanwhile, was undergoing a linguistic transition of its own that would complete itself when conservation biology became an official discipline. And in 1973, the Endangered Species Act joined its platform with the environmental one: By protecting things that lived in the environment, in the wild, it also protected wilderness. The goals of the two movements were as cleanly, tautologically aligned as they had ever been.

Climate change, though, would seem to revive those older tensions, or at least knock the fraternal movements askew. The conservationist is still concerned with the integrity of ecosystems, with biodiversity – essentially, with other life on the planet. The environmentalist wants to keep Earth hospitable for humans. But what hospitability means for the environmentalist has metamorphosed from pristine landscapes (themselves mythical, but never mind) into larger, more abstract notions of planetary health – weaning society off fossil fuels, eating more sustainably, stabilizing human population. Conservation simply doesn’t have much to say, directly at least, about those goals. Now, it is conservation that is about place, and environmentalism that is about process. And conservation’s existential appeals to save a certain species or protect a given acreage don’t have as much traction by themselves anymore. So how does conservation stay relevant, in the broader sense?

What it has to offer, Hoekstra says, is motivation. Take forests. About 12 percent of global annual carbon emissions comes from deforestation. Conservation’s work to stop deforestation is thus good both from a conservationist’s point of view and an environmentalist’s. Such was the case with the spotted owl.

“The thing I always tell people,” Forsman says, “is that the debate was never about the spotted owl. It was about biodiversity, old forests – things people care about.”

The forest was saved. The ESA worked fabulously – except for the fact that the spotted owl still hasn’t recovered.

In the aftermath of the listing, the forest for all intents and purposes was saved. Logging levels are not likely to rise anywhere near to what that they were in the past. In the end, one could argue that the ESA and the conservation rationale behind it worked fabulously. Except for the small niggling detail that the spotted owl still hasn’t recovered. And no one is sure what to do about that.

Back in Marsh Trib, this comes to mind as Reid and I hike down to a creek, then up a steep hillside. She stops and hoots again. When I stand next to her, her calls seem unnaturally, almost unbearably loud. But when I fall behind – she’s a fast hiker – the trees come between us, and the forest swallows the sound. She looks at the big trees. “The timber industry likes to make a big deal about owls that are found in suboptimal habitat, like that means they can live there all the time,” she says. “Well, you know, sometimes I see people living under bridges…” She trails off. The analogy completes itself.

Reid has a hunch that, if there is a pair, they will be in a tall madrone tree they used a couple of years ago. Thirty feet above the ground, its thick trunk bends abruptly, as if broken off; gaping at the bend is a large, natural cavity, the opening of which is about two feet tall and one foot across. She hoots again, and we hear a muffled response. Just then, the male sweeps over and lands in another tree. He sits absolutely still and scrutinizes us. Here, he is just an owl. Reid reaches into her backpack and puts a small white mouse on a near branch. The male waits a beat, then swoops down and snatches up the mouse and flies off.

It’s April, so the four-mouse rule is in effect: The male might eat the first two, but once he’s full, he’ll probably take the other two to his mate, and in so doing reveal the location of the nest. Sure enough, with the third mouse, the male doesn’t perch but instead goes to from tree to tree. Whenever he lands, he turns to face the madrone and hoots, or lets out a low, thin screech. Sometimes the female answers from the cavity. “That’s the contact call,” Reid says. “She’s in there, for sure, but she just won’t come out for some reason.” While we’re looking for her, the male drops the mouse on the ground and leaves. Reid goes over and picks it up. “Do you see him?” she asks.

I scan the tall striated trunks, the heavy tangled thatch of moss and branch, but if the owl is anywhere near us, I sure can’t tell. “Oh well,” Reid says. “I guess he’s gone.” She shoulders her pack and props the mouse on an exposed branch of a madrone, arranges its limbs carefully, just so. “There,” she says. “In case he comes back.”

Eric Wagner lives in Seattle, Washington. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Orion, and Smithsonian, among other places.

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