Of Owls and Politics

PRESIDENT Bush thrust the northern spotted owl into the campaign this week. Addressing a crowd in Colville, Wash., he called for putting brakes on the Endangered Species Act and giving more weight to economic concerns.

The president's words were cheered. Lumber-mill towns throughout the Far West bristle with resentment over federal efforts to protect the owl by placing large tracts of virgin forest off-limits to loggers.

The resentment is fanned by other economic factors. Automation in the timber industry has done away with many mill jobs, and tree harvesting in remote parts of the Western forest has become more expensive, turning companies toward less mountainous stands of pine in the Southeast.

But discontent has centered on the endangered owl - and by extension on hundreds of other rare creatures that inhabit the country's woodlands. The imminent reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, first passed in 1973, will be a showdown.

On one side are aggrieved citizens, wood-products companies, land developers, and others who argue that the act is rigid and oblivious to economic need. On the other are environmental groups who cite the animals saved by the act - from alligators to bald eagles - and say the law already includes ways of accommodating economic interests.

The issue won't be resolved before the election, and it may have little impact on voters' decisions, except in pockets of the West. It's a subject of considerable importance, however, in setting a course for the United States as it heads into a new century. The protection of species won't fade as an issue. Works like the new book by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, "The Diversity of Life," will keep it squarely in view.

Mr. Bush has staked out his position, and the law may in fact need some adjusting. But the act's central purpose - protecting nature's riches against obliteration by industry and development - remains valid. It needs careful preserving.

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