Spotted owls vs. the timber industry

YOU'VE probably never seen a Northern spotted owl. It's rare, midsize, and lives in rugged and remote regions of the Pacific Northwest. The problem is, if the logging industry has its way, neither your children nor grandchildren will ever see one, either. As Daniel Simberloff, a Florida State University biologist, has said, ``The spotted owl has become a focus of three key conservation issues: our national commitment to maintain biological diversity, the role of conservation management of our national forests and other public lands, and the extent to which science can help to solve conservation problems.''

Spotted owls live in old-growth forest, that is, forest between 350 and 750 years old and dominated by huge Douglas fir and Western hemlock trees. Young, undisturbed forest (between 175 and 250 years old) occasionally has enough older characteristics to support spotted owls. They need a good bit of land - some 2,000 acres for the average breeding pair.

The logging industry, which covets prime breeding territories for spotted owls because of all the old trees, has been clear-cutting old-growth forests. Estimates indicate that two-thirds of the old-growth forests that existed in the 19th century in the Pacific Northwest have already been destroyed. More than three-quarters of the remaining acceptable land in Washington and Oregon is within national forests. The United States Forest Service thus should be a key player in preserving this species.

In 1984 the Forest Service published its ``Final Regional Guide and Final Environmental Impact Statement of the Pacific Northwest Region,'' which reported a decision to reduce the owl population from about 2,000 pairs to 375 pairs. The plan also called on the Forest Service to persuade each breeding pair to survive on half the amount of land that it had been using. A large number of environmental groups protested, the deputy assistant secretary of agriculture called for further study, and the National Audubon Society asked for an advisory panel of ecologists to recommend a management program.

The scientists went to work. Field studies of all sorts were conducted, so we now know a great deal about the spotted owl. The ecologists concluded that the Forest Service plan would almost certainly lead to the extinction of the species. They recommended that at least 1,500 pairs be preserved and called for the protection of a network of sites, each between 1,400 and 4,500 acres, throughout the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Faced with these recommendations, the Forest Service revised its plan. But the new plan calls for at most 550 pairs of owls to be preserved on only 1,000- to 2,200-acre plots. Ecologists predicted that this plan could lead to the extinction of the spotted owls within a century, even under the best of conditions.

Conditions are far from ideal, however, because each regional headquarters of the Forest Service enjoys a good deal of autonomy. Although the management plan calls for the protection of 550 habitat areas, the definition of a suitable area has been left up to the regional offices, some of which have rather strange notions about the needs of spotted owls. Even recently clear-cut sites have been designated as acceptable on the grounds that they were being managed for old growth. In other words, they were not scheduled to be clear-cut again for 300 years. But the owls need forest undisturbed for at least 175 years.

Yet, even this modest plan was unacceptable to the logging industry, which claimed that it tied up too much forest and would impose major economic hardships. Given that the industry has slowed its rate of clearing trees, and has even attempted to sell back logging rights to the Forest Service, this is a curious claim.

Logging in the Pacific Northwest is not a healthy industry, and has remained barely viable only because of large government subsidies, which have taken two forms: import tariffs on Canadian lumber, and the government payment of construction costs for logging roads.

Bizarrely, this cost occasionally exceeds the value of the timber harvested - $253 million budgeted for road construction in fiscal 1987 alone! Furthermore, most of the wood harvested in the Northwest is processed in Asia. Logging itself, therefore, has a rather minimal social and economic impact on local workers.

While disputing the industry's assessment of the magnitude of the economic hardship, Kenneth Dixon and Thomas Juelson of the Washington Department of Game have an interesting solution: Shift the government subsidy from the industry to the workers. The workers would be aided directly, and the cost of the subsidy would be markedly less than it is now. The owls could thus be preserved without serious economic hardship to individuals.

Why should we care about the spotted owl? First, voices more articulate than mine have explained how we lose a bit of our humanity when we allow species to go extinct. Second, the spotted owl has been designated as an indicator species: The status of the spotted owl tells scientists a good deal about other species living in old-growth forests.

Finally, the scientific community has made a large investment in understanding the biology of the spotted owl. We know enough to ensure its survival. The question is: Will we?

Michael Zimmerman is a biology teacher at Oberlin College in Ohio.

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