The Spotted Owl Experiment- Lessons Learned?

I thought this newspaper story was interesting.. it summarizes the history of the major transition in the Northwest around the spotted owl. Of course, many of us were actually there. The story as depicted in the article doesn’t bear much resemblance to my experience.

The logic goes like this. Through ESA litigation, we shut down old growth logging in the Pacific Northwest. It really wasn’t about the spotted owl, it was about old growth.

From that standpoint, Babbitt said, the forest plan has been a success despite the declining owl populations. The plan represented a landmark in conservation planning, with forest managers now looking at entire ecosystems rather than just drawing lines on a map, Babbitt said.

(The second sentence about drawing lines on maps doesn’t make much sense out of context)

The story continues that even though the owl has declined, it’s still OK because the social changes weren’t really that bad for anyone. The people who wanted better wages left the local communities, and tourism provides some relatively low paying jobs.

Do others have some difficulty reconciling these two statements?:

The Northwest Forest Plan resulted in an 80 percent drop in logging in the region’s 24 million acres of federal forests. The Clinton administration hoped that about 1 million board feet could be cut annually, but that hasn’t happened in 20 years.

And :

One 1995 estimate by the Forest Service said that 400 jobs had been lost as a result of the logging restrictions.

“They were hard hit, but much of it occurred in the 1980s, before the owl,” said Annabel Kirschner , a Washington State University professor who’s studied timber industry employment. “It had nothing to do with environmental policies.”

This seems like a very strong assertion. Nothing to do with.. like 0% influence.

In some cases, those who write newspaper articles seem to want to tie things up in neat little story lines. But very few policy conflicts lend themselves to a neat story line. and there are voices that don’t seem to be heard in such articles. Here is another version of the story from 2008.

On this Labor Day, we might ask: could we have gotten protection of old growth without that extensive an impact on workers and communities? Did the costs of the desirable goal of old growth protection fall unfairly on the working class and rural communities? Could that transition have been designed so that that it was less about timber companies versus environmentalists and more about people in communities? Should it have been designed to make that transition more gradual?

What are your ideas of the lessons to be learned from this policy experiment?

2 thoughts on “The Spotted Owl Experiment- Lessons Learned?”

  1. There are plenty of misconceptions about the spotted owls of the west. One of them is the belief that old growth was now all saved as northern spotted owl habitat. I’ve seen trees up to 59″ dbh cut under existing “protections”, while the non-listed California spotted owl has absolute protection of trees above 30″ dbh.

    That 1 million board foot figure surely has to be a typo. That is a molecule in the bucket compared to the area’s actual growth. One smaller thinning sale generates that muich volume. The real figure is probably 100 million board feet, spread out over dozens of Ranger Districts.

    The Biscuit Fire, alone, burned up dozens of existing nests, also impacting the northern goshawk, which shares both foraging AND nesting habitat with the spotted owl. (In fact, goshawks will even eat the larger owl, if given the chance.) Locking out restoration projects is looking less and less desirable to wildlife biologists and forest ecologists.

    Changes had to be made, and most people didn’t really know exactly what we should have been doing to change. That’s not really different from today’s issues, as forest management continues to be underestimated in its complexities.

  2. It’s practically a full time job refuting the notion that logging has been dismal under the Northwest Forest Plan. The “estimated” timber target was 1 Billion board feet per year, that’s billion with a “B” but this was based on an assumption that most of the volume would come from logging mature & old-growth forests, but that turned out to be unacceptable socially, ecologically, and legally. The FS and BLM have been producing about 600 million board feet annually, and in recent years mostly from thinning young stands.

    We need to give credit to the BLM and USFS (and an emerging thinning-tolerant conservation community) for all the forest work that IS getting done. It’s certainly not insubstantial. In fact, a total of 7.6 billion (with a “B”) board feet of timber has been offered/sold from federal forest lands under the NWFP since 1995 (from both FS and BLM in the owl region). That’s equivalent to 1.5 million log truck loads, which would stretch 15,800 miles if parked end-to-end. That many trucks would form a convoy of log trucks, five abreast parked end-to-end, stretching continuously from Seattle, WA to San Jose, (not California) San Jose, COSTA RICA!


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