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After 20 Years of Protection, Owl Declining but Forests Remain

by Les Blumenthal

WASHINGTON — Twenty years after northern spotted owls were protected under the Endangered Species Act, their numbers continue to decline, and scientists aren't certain whether the birds will survive even though logging was banned on much of the old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest where they live in order to save them.

The owl remains an iconic symbol in a region where once loggers in steel-spiked, high-topped caulk boots felled 200-year-old or even older trees and loaded them on trucks that compression-braked down twisty mountain roads to mills redolent with the smell of fresh sawdust and smoke from burning timber scraps.

Regionwide, the owl populations are dropping 2.9 percent a year. In Washington state, they're declining at 6 to 7 percent a year.

While that may seem like a small number, it adds up, said Eric Forsman, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis, Ore., who's studied the owl since 1968.

"Nothing we do seems to work for the spotted owl," Forsman said.

The fight over the owl, however, perhaps the fiercest in the history of the Endangered Species Act, was always about more than just protecting a surprisingly friendly, football-sized bird with dark feathers, dark eyes and white spots.

It also was about the future of the ancient Douglas fir, red cedar and Western hemlock forests that once stretched from northern California through Oregon and Washington state into British Columbia, and the habitat they provide for hundreds of species.

The owl was considered an indicator species, reflecting the health of forests where trees as old as 1,000 years grow. When the owl was listed as a threatened species in the summer of 1990, it was seen not just as a way to halt the decline in owl populations but also to end logging in the federal old-growth forests.

"Though the owl triggered it, what was at stake was the survival of the old-growth ecosystem," said Bruce Babbitt, who as the interior secretary during the Clinton administration helped write the still-controversial Northwest Forest Plan, which brought an uneasy truce to the owl wars.

From that standpoint, Babbitt said, the forest plan has been a success despite the declining owl populations. The plan represented a landmark in conservation planning, with forest managers now looking at entire ecosystems rather than just drawing lines on a map, Babbitt said.

Once Forks, Wash. — an isolated town of about 3,000 on the remote Olympic Peninsula, where 12 feet of rain falls annually — was the self-proclaimed "Timber Capital of the World." Logging trucks rumbled through downtown nonstop and tourists were considered pretty much a nuisance.

Though several recent studies found employment in the timber industry had dropped by almost half even before the owl was listed, as mills automated or closed, the early 1990s were tough times for towns such as Forks. By some estimates, more than 200 mills have closed over the past 20 years as the timber harvest in the region's national forests dropped from 4 billion board feet annually to about half a billion board feet.

Forks survived, and is now enjoying an economic boost from an unexpected source.

The town is the setting for the "Twilight" series of books, and so far this year more than 50,000 "Twilighters" have visited to eat Bella burgers and purchase buttons such as one that reads, "I kissed a werewolf and liked it."

Though they don't produce the high-paid logging and mill jobs of the past, other timber towns are turning to tourism. Oakridge, Ore., hopes to become a mecca for mountain biking. Aberdeen, Wash., the hometown of Kurt Cobain, could become a destination for GenXers on grunge music tours.

Though it doesn't grab headlines as it once did, the spotted owl fight is far from finished.

The Obama administration convinced a federal court to toss out a Bush administration plan that would have reduced critical habitat for the owl by 25 percent. Government lawyers told the judge that the Bush plan was "legally erroneous" and tainted with "improper political interference" from a top official in Bush's Interior Department.

Here's a closer look at how the protection of the owl has played out since the summer of 1990:

SPOTTED OWLS — Scientists still aren't sure how many owls there are on federal, state and local lands. Forsman said there might be 1,500 owls in Washington state and 3,000 to 4,000 in Oregon and northern California. The handful of remaining owls in British Columbia are in a captive breeding program at a zoo.

Though the loss of old-growth habitat from logging over the years is thought to be the main cause of the decline, a new culprit has emerged: the barred owl. The barred owl, a more aggressive cousin of the spotted owl, isn't native to the region and has slowly moved westward from the East. While barred owl populations are growing in the Northwest, they reportedly are declining in the East.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is deciding whether to hunt the barred owl to reduce its populations.

Scientists thought it could take up to 50 years for the spotted owl populations to rebound as forests stabilized, but they're troubled by the latest numbers and by the influx of barred owls.

"As a general rule you can't expect a turnaround in five, 10 or 20 years when you had 100 years of harvesting," said Paul Henson, who leads the spotted owl recovery effort for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Henson said there was some evidence that the bird was doing slightly better on those lands where logging had been banned.

"From my perspective it would be a lot worse without the forest plan, but we aren't out of the woods yet," he said.

FORESTS — As with the owl, it's hard to say how much old growth remains in the Northwest. By some estimates there were once 17 million acres of old-growth forest. Depending on the source, 3 percent to 12 percent may be left.

The Northwest Forest Plan prohibited logging on 7 million acres of "late successional" federal forest.

"There is almost no old-growth logging in Washington state," Boyles said.

The Northwest Forest Plan resulted in an 80 percent drop in logging in the region's 24 million acres of federal forests. The Clinton administration hoped that about 1 million board feet could be cut annually, but that hasn't happened in 20 years.

Logging continues on state and private lands.

"We know it won't ever go back to where it was, but there are things that can be done to help," said Jim Geisinger, the executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, who's been involved in the owl wars since the beginning.

PEOPLE — As protests mounted in the region in the early 1990s, with dead owls tacked onto roadside signs and "owl fricassee" facetiously placed on the menus of cafes in timber country, some estimated that the Northwest Forest Plan could result in the loss of up to 125,000 direct and indirect jobs. The number is now thought to be considerably lower. One 1995 estimate by the Forest Service said that 400 jobs had been lost as a result of the logging restrictions.

"They were hard hit, but much of it occurred in the 1980s, before the owl," said Annabel Kirschner, a Washington State University professor who's studied timber industry employment. "It had nothing to do with environmental policies."

Congress appropriated $1.2 billion over five years to retrain laid-off workers.

Marcia Bingham, the director of the Forks Chamber of Commerce, said many of those who were retrained left Forks.

"They retrained people for jobs that weren't on the Olympic Peninsula," she said.

Over the years, the resentment of those who remained has slowly faded.

"I can't remember the last time I heard someone talk about the owl," said Mike Gurling, a retired Olympic National Park ranger who now manages the Forks Visitor Center. "We landed on our feet."

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