How environmentalists used one little bird to kill the timber industry

July 14, 2015

The northern spotted owl: 25 years later

A Northern Spotted Owl

—A saga of protected habitat, destroyed economies, and still-declining numbers

So the saying goes; those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

On this Friday, 25 years ago, the northern spotted owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The bird itself has been hailed as an icon of environmental activism, but the impact of its listing has served as a dark omen to industries that depend on public land.

As the potential listing of the greater sage-grouse looms over the ranching world, the logging industry’s history with the northern spotted owl is important to remember lest it become the roadmap for the future of ranching in the West.

The saga began back in the 1970s when the environmental movement was getting started. Researchers, federal wildlife biologists, and burgeoning activists drew the attention of the public to the declining numbers of northern spotted owls. The bird quickly became a sympathetic, charismatic mascot of conservationists and its supposed antagonists—loggers—became a common villain in both the public narrative and popular media.

On June 26, 1990, the northern spotted owl was listed as threatened under the ESA. Following the listing and the setting aside of over 24 million acres for habitat and conservation, timber harvest on federal lands within the bird’s range declined significantly. By some accounts, the decline of federal timber harvest was as high as 95 percent in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. The impact on the areas’ timber industry and related employment and support infrastructure has been described as disastrous.

Impact on industry

“The timber industry today, compared to where it was back in 1990 when the spotted owl was listed, is about probably half to one-third of what it was back at that time,” Tom Partin, President of the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), told WLJ. AFRC covers the forest industry in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

A big part of the listing of the northern spotted owl was the Northwest Forest Plan (Plan or NWFP). The Plan outlined the volume of land to be set aside for the northern spotted owl as well as timber harvest projections. The Plan is not a single document, but rather the cohesive name given to a series of policies and guidelines on forest use in the area, which began with the “Northwest Forest Plan Record of Decision” in 1994.

The Plan allocated 24.5 million acres across the western edges of California, Oregon and Washington for the northern spotted owl and other conservation efforts related to old-growth forests. Estimates on annual average timber harvest during the first decade of the Plan’s implementation varied, ranging from 100 million board feet to 1.8 billion board feet, but most of them were in the 800 million to 1.1 billion board feet range. The recently released draft 20-year (1994-2013) impact report said the current “probable sale quantity” of timber from federal lands in the NWFP territory is 805 million board feet per year.

The reality hasn’t shaped up to these common projections, though what exactly it has shaped up into is unclear and depends on the source. Data offered by the AFRC shows an annual average of 318 million board feet of timber harvested from federal forest land in the NWFP area from 1996-2001, and an average of 305 million board feet between 2002-2006. In speaking to WLJ, Partin frequently referenced the 300 million board feet level in current terms.

A 2007 report from the USDA’s Pacific Northwest’s Research Station stated the level of timber harvest from federal forests covered by the Plan in then-recent years as about 500 million board feet, which does not hold with the AFRC numbers. The draft 20-year impact report’s historical tracking of federal timber harvests in the NW- FP territory does not align with volumes claimed by either AFRC nor the 2007 report’s estimates. The draft 20-year impact report shows the levels at just over 600 million board feet for both 2011 and 2012 with no information on 2013.


Whatever the accurate volumes are, this all compares to the 4.5-5 billion board feet of timber that was harvested from federal forests prior to the listing of the northern spotted owl and the implementation of the Plan.

“Obviously there were a lot more sawmills back in the late ’80s/early-’90s than what there are today,” Partin said. “In Oregon, today there’re 105 mills open, and between 1980 and 2014, there were 300 mills that closed. So we’re down 74 percent of the number of mills in Oregon.”

He went on to discuss the jobs impact, saying the direct mill employment in the late 1980s stood at around 46,000, compared to 15,706 mill workers in 2014.

“So employment is down 66 percent in the sawmill industry.”

Read the full story here:

Reposted by  7/14/15

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