The protection of habitat for an officially designated “threatened” species, the Northern Spotted Owl, is widely seen as having endangered the survival of a very different “species,” namely the rural American logger. In spite of the widespread agreement on this point, however, it is not clear just how many jobs have been endangered, over just how long a period, due to the protection of spotted-owl habitat and of the environment more broadly. In the present paper, we analyze longer term employment trends in logging and milling, both nationally and in the two states of the Pacific Northwest where the spotted-owl debate has been most intense, to determine the length of time over which such environmental protection efforts have been creating the loss of logging and milling jobs. There are three potential key “turning points” since the start of high-quality employment data in 1947—the 1989 controversy over the federal “listing” of the Northern Spotted Owl under the Endangered Species Act, the earlier increase in environmental regulations accompanying the first Earth Day in 1970, and the still-earlier “locking up” of timber after the passage of the Wilderness Protection Act in 1964. We also examine the effects of two other variables that have received considerable attention in the ongoing debates—levels of U.S. Forest Service timber harvests and the exporting of raw logs. We find that the 1989 listing of the spotted owl has no significant effect on employment—not even in the two states where the debate has been most intense. Instead, the only statistically significant turning point came with the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. The direction of the change, however, was precisely the opposite of what is generally expected. Both nationally and in the Pacific Northwest, the greatest decline in timber employment occurred from 1947 until 1964—a time of great economic growth, a general absence of “unreasonable environmental regulations,” and growing timber harvests. The period since the passage of the Wilderness Act has been one of increased complaints about environmental constraints, but much less decline in U.S. logging employment. If logging jobs have indeed been endangered by efforts to protect the environment in general and spotted-owl habitat in particular, what is needed is a plausible explanation of how the influence of the owls could have begun more than forty years before the species came under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Curious, Forsman scouted and listened hard, eventually realizing he was hearing a bird he had never heard before. Later that summer, his first northern spotted owl flew in.
The owl, characteristic of its breed, showed little fear. It gave Forsman a "big brown-eyed look."
"Once I heard what they sounded like," he says, "I started looking for them."
What Forsman and fellow researchers found after that summer of 1968 led to the owl's listing as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act on June 26, 1990 -- 20 years ago today.
Spotted owls are welterweights as owls go, averaging 1.3 pounds and 18 inches long. But their listing opened the Northwest's timber wars, a heavyweight slugfest between environmentalists and loggers, city and country.
The listing saved precious old-growth stands, repositories of clean water and diverse critters. But it sharply curtailed harvests on federal forests. That put more logging pressure on Oregon's limited state forests, shuttered mills and cut the state's total harvest in half.
Northern spotted owl timeline
1970s: Researchers begin focusing on owl, tracking it.
1973: Spotted owl first cited as potentially threatened with extinction.
1974: Barred owl, a more aggressive spotted owl competitor, first spotted in Oregon.
1980s: Research indicates owl numbers drop as loggers harvest in older stands.
June 26, 1990: Spotted owl is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
1991: A federal judge issues an injunction that shuts down federal timber sales on most westside forests in Oregon and Washington.
1994: Clinton administration adopts Northwest Forest Plan, reserves nearly 6 million acres of federal forest.
2004: Bush administration says owl still faces enough risk to warrant continued federal protection.
2007: Bush administration proposes reducing spotted owl's designated habitat in federal forests by 23 percent. A timber industry lawsuit, still under review, says reduction not enough.
2008: After five years of work, U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposes increased logging on Oregon lands, in part to fulfill harvest goals not met under the Northwest Forest Plan.
2009: Obama administration drops BLM plan.
Forsman, now a 62-year-old wildlife biologist with gray hair and three Oregon State degrees, still conducts research from the Forest Service's science laboratory in Corvallis. He and other researchers figure the spotted owl population is declining about 2.9 percent a year .
Oregon's annual drop is in the 2 to 3 percent range. The decline is worse to the north, where the barred owl first arrived, with the decline in Washington around 7 percent a year. In British Columbia, the spotted owl is nearly gone.
It's too soon to write the owl's epitaph, Forsman says -- the evidence in British Columbia is they hang on for a long time even as their numbers dwindle.
But the trend isn't good. Since the barred owl arrived in force, he says, "we've never seen the spotted owl population go up anywhere."
Speaking for wildlife
Forsman, who grew up hunting, trapping and fishing outside Eugene, was the first to count spotted owls in earnest, imitating the birds' calls, climbing trees, documenting nests. California and Washington researchers soon followed.
The new research found them in higher numbers than expected, clustered in older stands full of flying squirrels and other prey.
Over time, Forsman says, it became clear that logging in pristine old growth and in mature stands last burned in the 1800s was squeezing the bird.
Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, was involved when the listing came down. "We were absolutely shell-shocked," he says.
By 1994, the harvest from Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management forests in Oregon plummeted. With it went prime timber jobs.
In 1989, logging on federal lands accounted for more than half of Oregon's harvest. As of 2008, it fell to less than 10 percent, though Oregon remains the top U.S. producer of softwood lumber because of logging on private, tribal and state forests.
The Clinton administration's Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 reserved 6 million acres but was supposed to guarantee specific amounts of logging on other lands. Those numbers never materialized. That's left the federal forests more vulnerable to catastrophic fires, Geisinger says, putting a premium on thinning projects to reduce the risk.
"We know we're not going back to the harvest levels of the '70s and '80s," he says. "But we've got to do more than we're doing now, if for nothing else than the health of the forest."
Forsman and other scientists agree that the relatively dry forests on the east side and in southern Oregon could use measures such as thinning and clear-cut corridors to act as fire breaks. There's much more debate when it comes to wetter westside forests.Forsman says he hates seeing the lost jobs. He has testified in court cases as protesters marched outside and log trucks blared their horns. His dad was a carpenter. His five brothers all have jobs tied to timber or construction.
"But I feel like it's my job to try and be a spokesperson for wildlife, so at least when we make decisions we don't make them in a vacuum."
He also concedes a soft spot for spotted owls.
Forty years ago, he rescued a stranded juvenile spotted owl from the first nest he found, about 15 miles west of Corvallis. He tended her for 30 years with help from his wife and three children, taking her to schools and roadshows as an ambassador for the species.
"They have this unique personality," he says. "It reaches out and grabs you."
After the 1990 listing, researchers saw signs that the spotted owl population might be stabilizing. Then the barred owl began its rapid rise.
Barred owls, from east of the Rockies, are more aggressive than spotted owls and less finicky, eating everything from rodents to crayfish to snails.
Those traits help them thrive in a smaller range, quickly build their populations and win the competition for territory and food.Kristen Boyles, a Northwest staff attorney for the environmental law group Earthjustice, says the spotted owl would be far worse off without the listing.
It has also increased support for preserving old-growth forests, down to about 10 percent of their historical level, Boyles says.
"The spotted owl has become our shorthand for that."
Forsman figures the total spotted owl population is down to a couple of thousand pairs in Oregon and Northern California, fewer in Washington.
Wildlife managers are contemplating shooting barred owls to see if that helps spotted owls.
Forsman hopes the two species can coexist in the long run, despite recent evidence to the contrary.
A site near Santiam Pass, about 40 miles north of Forsman's onetime summer roost, is Oregon's longest-running spotted owl nesting site.
Last year, a pair of barred owls showed up. This year, Forsman says, there were no signs of spotted owls.
-- Scott Learn