Overview - The Spotted Owl Decision

In March and May of 1991, Federal District Judge William L. Dwyer issued two landmark decisions in the lawsuit filed by the Seattle Audubon Society against the U.S. Forest Service on behalf of the Northern Spotted Owl. The Northern Spotted Owl (Strix Occidentalis) is a nocturnal, woodland owl native to the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, Western Canada, and Alaska whose survival is tied directly to the health of old growth forest ecosystems, and as such, had assumed the role of an indicator species for the health of these ecosystems. Throughout this region, decades of intense, unsustainable logging for high quality old growth timber has reduced these forests to less than 18 percent of their historic levels.

The demise of these forests has endangered the continued existence many species native to the habitat they support, including the northern spotted owl which was officially listed as Threatened under the ESA in 1990. With the Threatened listing of the northern spotted owl, pressure on the USFS and the timber industry to curtail logging in Pacific Northwest old growth forests increased exponentially, culminating in the Dwyer decision of 1991. The summary conclusion of Dwyer's two rulings was that the Forest Service had violated the National Forest Management Act by failing to implement an acceptable management plan for the owl and that there should be no timber sales from any known spotted owl habitat until the Forest Service could implement an acceptable plan. An injunction blocking timber sales from all known habitat areas in 17 national forests in Washington, Oregon and Northern California was then put in place.

Over the last century, few environmental issues have sparked as much passion and commentary as this one. The timber industry in Washington and Oregon was already struggling due to increased overseas competition, diminishing demand for its products, and increased mechanization of timber harvest and milling. The spotted owl decision dealt it a crippling, and very high profile blow, right when timber workers were already feeling marginalized by economic forces larger than their mills and communities. It was only too natural to blame the owl for the industry's woes. The cry of "jobs vs. owls" rang out throughout timber communities in Washington and Oregon, and the spotted owl became at once a symbol of reverence and rage to those on both sides of the controversy.

Like so many other environmental issues, there is more to this problem than industry and antienvironmental forums will acknowledge. The spotted owl, by itself, was never the focal point of environmental concerns—the issue was, and continues to be, old growth Forest ecosystems. These support a bewildering diversity of fauna and flora, provide numerous ecological services, and contain within them the genetic heritage that insures the future survival of all northern temperate forests. The spotted owl was singled out for attention in this debate only because its life cycle is at once easily monitored and heavily dependent on the old growth habitat, so they make a good indicator species for tracking the health of these ecosystems. If Strix Occidentalis is in trouble, old growth ecosystems are in trouble.

Likewise, the economic impacts of the spotted owl decision did not prove as disastrous its critics claimed. This section links a report from the Oregon based firm ECONorthwest that recounts the history of the timber industry decline in Washington and Oregon (beginning in the 80's), and the impact of the spotted owl decision on timber jobs. An examination for the critical factors affecting the industry decline is made against the background of the larger evolution of the Pacific Northwest economy during that period showing that not only did local economies not collapse most grew—including most timber dependent regions.

Like so many other anti-environmentalists forecasting economic doom from environmental protections, the spotted owl's detractors assumed that economies are rigid and inflexible—unable to adapt to changing market environments. In fact, this is false. When one sector takes a hit, others absorb much of the impact, and communities adapt to changing environments. Declines in one sector accompany growth in other sectors and/or shifting demographics. When timber declined, other sectors such as the high tech and service sectors absorbed those jobs and geographically redistributed them. The real cause of the timber industry decline was simply that Pacific Northwest forests could no longer support the unsustainably high levels of harvest that the industry was taking for granted. At the same time, there was a growing public awareness that forests were of more value, economically and spiritually, in an intact state. The market experienced an unavoidable shift. The report examines how this shift came about, the factors that drove it, and the lessons that can be learned from it for future environmental and economic policy.


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