Two endangered species of the Pacific Northwest are front-page news these days — the northern spotted owl and the logger. Portrayed as irreconcilable antagonists, they are in fact ecological kin, dependent on the same environment. Their existence is threatened by the same voracious predator — the timber industry.
The ancient forests which once covered the greater part of the U.S. have sustained both the logger and the owl. Now these forests are nearly gone, with most of the remaining old-growth stands concentrated in an ever-thinner and spottier strip running along the western Cascades through Washington, Oregon, and northern California.
The fates of owl and logger are indissolubly bound up with their habitat — which is disappearing at the rate of nearly 70,000 acres every year.
This isn’t the case for the corporations whose chainsaws are leveling the forests. The whole planet is their “habitat,” and the redwood or the Douglas fir just another commodity.
When corporate raider Harold Simmons is through clearcutting the old growth he acquired in 1984 near Butte Falls, Oregon, for example, he will still have another means of survival: a two-billion-dollar empire in sugar, petroleum, chemicals, and fast-food restaurants.
The immediate fact is that protecting the owl will mean the loss of between 25,000 and 50,000 timber jobs in the next decade. But the bigger truth is that the timber companies’ feeding frenzy has already brought about a sharp, continuing decline in the number of industry jobs — as well as the near-annihilation of an irreplaceable resource, the ancient forest, which is a vital part of the planet’s overall life-support system.
Owl, forest, earth. The spotted owl is an unlikely candidate to have gained such notoriety, attracted so many champions, and earned so many enemies. Mostly nocturnal, the owls stand two feet tall or less and weigh little more than a pound. They claim territory in pairs, staying in the same home areas for as long as they can.
After years of foot-dragging and resistance, the Fish and Wildlife Service in June 1990 listed the spotted owl as a threatened species. This means that the government is required by the Endangered Species Act to guard the owl’s survival — and for its survival it needs extensive quantities of very old forest. It thrives in the unmanaged forest, with its variety of tree species and types of wildlife, many standing dead trees, and, on the forest floor, messy natural litter.
The owl is an “indicator species” for the ancient forest ecosystem. It’s the canary in the mine. The health or precariousness of the forest and its other inhabitants mirrors the owl’s status.
The old-growth forest provides a home for thousands of species, many of whom cannot survive in any other type of environment. For humans, it provides a home away from home, a refuge and renewal. For scientists, it is an incomparable data bank and laboratory.
Even more fundamentally, the kinds of life that exist on earth today can not exist without the forests. Almost all of the water we use flows ultimately from forests, and forests help prevent flooding and erosion.
Further, trees produce the oxygen that is essential in maintaining the ozone layer, the part of our atmosphere that protects the earth from being irradiated by the sun’s ultraviolet energy. The cutting down of vast amounts of forest all over the globe amounts to what the movie The Blue Planet calls “an uncontrolled experiment” on an incredible scale. The results? We may be about to find out, for scientists believe they have discovered a hole the size of Australia in the ozone layer above Antarctica.
Strategy for survival. The ecological issues riding on the wings of the spotted owl explain much of the force and urgency behind the campaign to save the bird. At the center of the storm over the owl’s future is what is known as the Jack Ward Thomas report.
Thomas, a chief biologist for the Forest Service, is an internationally known wildlife scientist and award-winning author. A former Texan, he began work as a game biologist because he enjoyed hunting and fishing.
The Forest Service has operated historically as an enthusiastic, uncritical seller of public trees to the timber industry. Under its stewardship, the national forests have been managed in order to bolster the brisk trade in wood. Enhancement of forest recreational use has run a distant second. Ecological concerns have drawn active opposition.
In response to legal and political organizing by environmentalists, the Forest Service has shifted its orientation somewhat over the past few years. But external pressure is not the only cause of this change. Thomas believes the entrance of women into the agency has been the main lever pushing it into a more pro-conservation posture.
Says Thomas, “Women have a tendency to be more persistent. They are less apt to immediately succumb to authority. Their persistence is a form of toughness.”
Thomas led a committee which was mandated by the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service to “develop a scientifically credible conservation strategy for the northern spotted owl.”
They developed a plan which prescribes that large amounts of old-growth forest be preserved in their natural state — which means off limits to the timber barons. Thomas’ proposal calls for setting aside more forest than earlier strategies did. This allows most of the areas to be home to as many as 20 pairs of owls instead of one or two or three and achieves shorter distances between owl habitats. The Habitat Conservation Areas would be a string of separate but interrelated islands — a forest archipelago — from the Canadian border to north of San Francisco.
Michael Anderson, a Seattle forest planning specialist with the Wilderness Society, acknowledges the scientific credibility of the Thomas report, crediting it with “incorporating the newest concepts like island biogeography.”
But, Anderson says, “The plan allows areas that are currently the owls’ best habitat to get badly hacked up.”
Thomas’ recommendations protect just enough ancient forest to ensure the survival of the owl as a species, possibly with its numbers cut in half, for the next hundred years. This is not the best news the owl has ever had — though it may be the best recent news — and it allows for the continued sale of several billions of board feet of national timber every year to the industry.
Attack by bureaucracy. Even so, the Thomas report is now being chewed over and chopped up like the forest. Predictably, what doesn’t go far enough for environmentalists goes way too far for the logging companies and their buddies in politics and the labor union bureaucracy.
Bush’s Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan branded as unacceptable the Thomas recommendations to rein in logging sales on public lands. Bush then launched a task force whose stated goal was to balance the need to preserve jobs against the need to protect the owl. Its real purpose was to see how far it could erode the Thomas plan without directly challenging the report as a whole.
This is borne out by the suppression of a document modestly titled” Actions the Administration May Wish to Consider in Implementing a Conservation Strategy for the Northern Spotted Owl.” This unpublished paper was put together in May 1990 by a joint Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management (BLM) team. It makes concrete proposals for improving the lot of the timber communities which will be hurt by logging reductions.
Bush’s own task force neglected to suggest any short-term remedies to help unemployed woodworkers and their families and towns.
It did, however, recommend immediate activation of the “God Squad,” an appointed Cabinet committee chaired by Lujan which has the ability to override decisions about protecting vanishing species that conflict too strenuously with the sacred right to make a fast buck.
The Senate voted against letting the God Squad broker the fate of the ancient forests.
Meanwhile, others were also attempting to bushwhack Thomas’ plan. An Oregon labor official attacked it as “voodoo biology,” and Oregon Senator Robert Packwood tried in vain to block it.
Despite opposition, the Thomas strategy has a chance of being implemented in some form. The Forest Service has basically embraced the plan and announced that FS timber sales will be arranged in a manner “not inconsistent with” the report. The BLM, the other major caretaker of federal forests, is willing to conform to most parts of the strategy, but quarrels with others. Battles are raging state by state over the plan’s application on private lands.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is now forming a team to put together an owl recovery plan, which they are required by law to do for all endangered and threatened species. Nevertheless, recovery plans have been adopted for only half the listed species.
Junk bonds, junk planet. While the bureaucracy fiddles, the forests fall. But no matter how fast the timber hits the ground, it won’t be fast enough for Texan Charles Hurwitz.
Hurwitz, of MAXXAM Inc., is typical of a new strain of timber baron nurtured during the greed-is-good ’80s. Hurwitz financed his takeover of California’s Pacific Lumber Company with junk bonds. His partners? Michael Milken and Boyd Jeffries, both since convicted of felonies. This is one of the deals that Ivan Boesky made millions from through inside information.
With interest payments on his debt financing approaching $ 79 million a year, Hurwitz realized that he needed to liquidate his assets — fast.
His assets are most of the last of the ancient redwoods. He has ordered that they be clearcut three times as quickly as the previous rate.
The pattern is the same all up and down the forest corridor. Britain’s Sir James Goldsmith bought up Diamond International between 1982 and 1988 and Crown Zellerbach in 1984. Georgia Pacific ate up Great Northern Nekoosa and Great Northern Paper. It owns ecosystems all over the world and is now eying the grand Siberian forest.
All these corporate raiders want is money, and they want it in a hurry. Companies now put lights on the logging equipment so that crews can work through the night — as well as on the weekends.
And they’re getting what they’re after. The years 1987-1989 were the best ever for the Northwest timber industry. More trees were felled in the national forests than ever before, and profits were high. In 1988, a record 10.8 billion board feet were cut.
But in the same year, ten thousand timber jobs were lost in Washington state alone.
This happened primarily because the companies, greatly assisted by automation, are managing to do more with fewer workers. The newest mechanical marvel is the Treepower FB-I, which can cut down trees 20 inches thick while moving up a 70-degree slope .
Additionally, more raw logs are being sent abroad to be processed. Louisiana Pacific closed a California mill and moved it to Mexico — where LP pays the workers 87 cents an hour.
How much time left? It appears the corporations are close to c1earcutting themselves out of business. Most of the old forests are gone; the tree-farm factories planted to replace them are far from adequate substitutes in either quality or quantity; thousands upon thousands of industry jobs have disappeared forever during a decade of peak production.
Today, a last-ditch battle to save what’s left of the forest has been joined, symbolized by the controversy over the spotted owl. The corporations, thirsty to hack the remaining forest to pulp, are trying to make the owl the scapebird for the dire straits of that other imperiled species, the logger.
If woods, owl, and logger are to be saved, environmentalists and timber workers are going to have to see through the bosses’ “jobs vs. owls” tactic and make common cause against the corporate rape of the forests.
The final installment of this two-part series on the spotted owl controversy will look at the question from the perspective or those who work in the forest and include an interview with logger Steve Goodman. It will examine the role of labor officialdom in meeting the crisis, discuss the environmental movement, and explore how the future of timber-industry workers can be protected without sacrificing the owl and the last of the ancient forests.