THE path toward solution of the northern spotted owl controversy seems as tangled as an old-growth forest.Conflicting scientific data on the threatened bird and how to protect its habitat, federal agencies at odds over timber harvesting in the Pacific Northwest, widely differing estimates of the economic impact of restricted logging, whether to limit exports to Japan, fundamental questions about preserving endangered species - these are just a few of the elements in a political struggle involving every level of government from county commissions to federal courts. Congress's return to Washington heightens the tension. At least five major legislative proposals deal directly with issue, and more are on the way. These range from a virtual ban on logging across millions of acres of federal forest to a continuation of most present tree-cutting practices. Some would provide special help for the hundreds of communities and thousands of workers and their families affected by court-ordered efforts to revive a shy, diminutive critter whose numbers have dwindled to a few tho usand.
National implications While regional in scope, the spotted owl story has important national ramifications. Other species and sub-species around the country have been proposed for official listing as threatened or endangered. And the 1973 Endangered Species Act itself (up for renewal next year) is under increasing attack by those who want to amend it so that economic factors are given greater weight in deciding to protect wildlife headed for extinction. US Bureau of Land Management director Cy Jamison last week asked Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan to convene a special government committee to exempt BLM timber sales from Endangered Species Act requirements. Only twice before in the 18-year history of the law has the so-called "God squad" been impaneled to make what could be life-or-death decisions on species. Through it all, the human face of balancing environmental protection and the development of natural resources has become increasingly clear. At a hearing held by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last week to elicit public comment on the proposed designation of 8.2 million acres of federal and state land as "critical habitat" for the owl, loggers, millworkers, and their families expressed fear and frustration at losing jobs and a way of life they have known for generations. "How do you retrain a man who's worked one job all his life?" asked Sandy Matthews from the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon, whose husband and son are timber workers. Mrs. Matthews is "so thankful" her husband found a job as a millwright after being laid off. But his income last year dropped $17,000, and the mother of five now has to work full-time to support a family whose "savings are all used up." "I see American dreams fading," said Darryl Crawford, a fourth-generation timber worker whose daughter Becky worries that the 137 students at the Happy Camp high school will have to be bused two hours out of the mountains of northern California to Yreka.
Severe strain predicted In a study this summer of 10 timber-dependent counties in Oregon (some relying on federal timber sales for as much as 66 percent of their revenue), University of Washington researchers predicted severe social and political strain if courts and federal agencies sharply cut back logging to protect the spotted owl. "Preventative health-care programs, law enforcement, youth services, and community museums and parks would be most adversely impacted by revenue reductions," the report states. "These impacts would take place at the same time that economic dislocation will cause a sharp increase in needs for local and state services ... anticipated increases in rural poverty and homelessness could result in increased needs for food, clothing, shelter, counseling, and law enforcement." At the public hearing in Medford, Ore., last week, one speaker reported that donations to the local United Way in Klamath County (where hundreds of timber jobs have been eliminated in the past year) have dropped sharply. "Many of the people who used to make donations are now asking for help," said Ted Rayburn, an official with the Western Council of Industrial Workers.
Numbers debated Meanwhile, the numbers of northern spotted owls (a subspecies of spotted owl) and the habitat it needs to survive are the subject of fierce debate. Federal government biologists put the known number of breeding pairs in Oregon, Washington, and California at 2,830. Environmentalists say the owl needs old-growth (or "ancient") forests, which means little, if any, logging and certainly no clear-cutting. But other scientists have found owls in younger stands of timber as well, including private forests where logging has taken place. Still, according to the FWS, suitable habitat for nesting, roosting, and foraging on unprotected US Forest Service lands in Oregon and Washington has declined 60 percent over the past 30 years, largely due to logging. The FWS says designating critical habitat will cost 2,458 jobs in the Northwest, but that is just part of the story. Overall job losses due to changes in forest management tied to the owl's listing as a threatened species could be 28,000, according to federal government estimates. Timber industry figures are even higher. Because of log exports and modernized mills, most economists agree that wood-products jobs will continue to drop in any case. Except to oppose special economic help for timber workers, the Bush administration has not spoken out on the issue. So far, the White House is leaving it to Congress to come up with a solution. Until then, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the FWS continue to move under court-imposed deadlines to protect the spotted owl - and life for many timber workers will remain uncertain. Bill Gregory, owner of several plywood and veneer plants and two sawmills in Oregon, announced last week that he would shut down in November if he isn't able to sell his operations. "I hope we can find a buyer," he said in a note to his 300 employees. "If not, score one for the owl."