THAT most infamous symbol of endangered species - the northern spotted owl - has come under increasing criticism of late. It's charged with putting loggers and mill workers out of work. Some say protecting its habitat has raised the cost of lumber. There are questions about whether in fact its numbers have been dwindling toward extinction.
Timber-industry jobs are declining, it's true, but more so because of automation and the export of raw logs to places like Japan. If the cost of lumber is higher (and exports are a factor here too), it's only by comparison with the 1980s when historic levels of unsustainable clear cutting wiped out all but the last of the old-growth forests. One can reasonably argue that higher costs today are making up for artificially low costs in the past.
Those years of go-go logging during the Reagan and Bush administrations came at the expense not only of the forests but of the reputation of the federal agencies charged with responsible forest management.
An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity earlier this year found that for years the Forest Service ``has been one of the most mismanaged, poorly led, politically manipulated, and corrupt agencies in the federal government ... one that mistreats and muzzles its own employees, routinely breaks the law, places its own budget over its mission to care for the land, and in general sleeps with the industry.''
That's a tough judgment, but one with which many inside the agency apparently agree. Just 35 percent of Forest Service professionals believe current timber practices are sustainable over the next century, according to a recent survey by University of Washington researchers. This is one reason why an organization of whistle-blowers and anonymous dissidents called the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics has blossomed in recent years.
As to owl numbers, timber-industry biologists in northern California say there are more birds in this part of its range (which extends north through Oregon into Washington State) than had been assumed when it was listed under the Endangered Species Act. This is plausible, although yet to be confirmed by independent means. In fact, 19 leading research scientists from universities in the United States and Canada recently warned that President Clinton's compromise plan to save jobs and owls still points toward extinction for the bird. ``The annual survival rate of adult females is declining significantly,'' they wrote to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy in March. ``Further habitat destruction and fragmentation ... cannot be justified scientifically.''
What most of the political and economic debate over spotted owls ignores is the overall health of the northwest forests. There are other more complicated and potentially more troubling indicators of declining ecosystems. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service reportedly has found that 76 approved federal timber sales could ``jeopardize the survival'' of the marbled murrelet, a shore bird that nests in old-growth forests and also is listed under the Endangered Species Act.
This past week saw increased conflict between sport fishermen, Indian tribes, and fisheries regulators over salmon, whose numbers have plummeted in recent years. According to the American Fisheries Society, 214 stocks of wild salmon along the Pacific coast risk extinction and another 106 stocks already are gone. Dams are the best-known culprit in the decline of migrating fish, but improper logging practices along rivers and streams are a big factor, too. These cause erosion and sedimentation, as the Environmental Defense Fund pointed out last week in its report ``The Big Kill: Declining Biodiversity in America's Lakes and Rivers.''
If it were just a matter of balancing a few thousand birds and a few thousand jobs and a few cents on the price of a two-by-four, solving the problem represented by the spotted owl would be relatively easy. But as is becoming increasingly clear, it's a lot more complicated than that.