Amid the current concern for tropical rain forests, says Boston University Prof. Peter Busher, "as North Americans we should not be so smug about the way we've treated our own forests."

Professor Busher runs a research camp high in the Sierra Nevada that studies what has probably become the most contentious forest critter in North America: the spotted owl. His rapid-fire slide show here at the annual meeting of the environmental research group Earthwatch juxtaposes images of cute owls and clear-cut forests. But the professor is quick to dismiss a polarization of the issue as owls versus jobs.

"The owl is not, in itself, the issue," he says; it is merely a biological indicator of the health of the forest.

As a mammologist, Busher focuses on the dietary preferences of the owl: mice, flying squirrels, rabbits. This summer, as in the past two years, a few dozen high school and college students will have the chance to camp out in the Sierra Nevada, tracing the owls' food supply.

The spotted owl in the Sierra Nevada is a cousin of the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest but does not share its protection under the Endangered Species Act. Lessons learned from one do not necessarily apply to the other, says Busher.

Busher emphasizes that by avoiding confrontational tactics (he once had to talk a volunteer out of chaining herself to a tree slated for cutting), he has developed a cooperative relationship with government agencies as well as local loggers. When an agency and a logging company learned that a parcel of land to be logged was occupied by owls, for example, they agreed to shift the cutting to another site.

"Mine is a fairly small project," Busher says, but it nonetheless illustrates how "we can work together."

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