THE Bush administration's Solomonic attempt to protect the northern spotted owl while preserving as many timber jobs as possible makes at least one thing certain: More lawsuits and legislative wrangling lie ahead. Whether or not the interests of the owl and Pacific Northwest timber workers can actually be balanced is far less clear. On June 26, four days after the spotted owl was officially listed as a threatened species, the administration announced plans for reduced logging in Bureau of Land Management forests in Oregon and northern California.
The BLM says its proposal would cost 1,000 jobs, far fewer than the 7,600 jobs likely to be lost under an earlier plan by government scientists, and would save 125 more pairs of owls than the scientific panel forecast.
Delayed once again is a broad owl-protection plan for US Forest Service land in Oregon, Washington, and California, which encompasses the bulk of spotted owl habitat and (according to the government scientists) puts some 20,000 jobs at risk.
Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter promises a comprehensive owl-protection plan by September. Until then, logging on US government lands will continue at the current pace - a fact that has environmentalists growling like chainsaws.
Under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, economic impact may not be considered in deciding whether to list a species as threatened or endangered. But such factors inevitably become part of the political process in forming plans for species recovery once the listing has been made.
The White House wants to minimize job loss without offering special compensation for timber workers (just as it refuses to compensate miners displaced by the Clean Air Act). At the same time, it must preserve what is seen as an important ``indicator species'' for the health of millions of acres of old-growth forests.
Waiting in the wings are environmentalists ready to sue on behalf of other vulnerable forest species said to be dangerously vulnerable to logging. ``What we're talking about here is an endangered ecosystem,'' says Julie Norman of the Oregon environmental group Headwaters. Also standing by are Sen. Jake Garn (R) of Utah and other lawmakers who want to make the Endangered Species Act less stringent.
Meanwhile, scientists increasingly advocate ``new forestry,'' which replaces clear-cutting with selective logging which leaves more living trees and natural debris for forest regeneration. The Forest Service and BLM have started moving in this direction.
The northern spotted owl promises to have far greater impact than any other threatened or endangered species - including the snail darter, which held up construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee in the late 1970s.
Less certain is whether it will flourish to the point of being out of danger. Of the 350 species listed since the Endangered Species Act went into effect 17 years ago, just five have fully recovered.