The Totem

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1997

The Totem

Environmental battles can turn on the most curious things
By John Daniel

As raptors go it isn't much, a 22-ounce forest hermit with not a feather's worth of charisma, but its nasal hoot became the environmental war cry of the late twentieth century. In the 1980s, with old-growth Douglas fir almost gone and the remainder being stripped at the rate of nearly two square miles per week, lawsuits citing the northern spotted owl's plummeting ranks forced the Forest Service to manage northwestern public lands less for maximum timber extraction and more for forest health.

The timber industry howled that 50,000 or even 100,000 jobs would succumb to 3,000 or so nesting pairs of a bird most people had never heard of. "We'll be up to our neck in owls, and out of work for every American," scowled George Bush on the campaign trail in 1992. Then-Senator Bob Packwood thundered, "Are you for people or for the bird?"

Sure enough, some mills did shut down, and the small towns they had supported fell on hard times. Rural Northwesterners, incensed at what they saw as a government/environmentalist juggernaut that condescended to them even as it ran them over, responded with a few acts of owlicide and assorted recipe tips, including bumper stickers saying I like my spotted owl fried and Warholian cream of spotted owl soup T-shirts.

Peering out from the cover of Time, the bird evolved into an icon of the seemingly irresolvable tension between a healthy economy and a protected environment — the inscrutable logo for a nation that couldn't decide which was worse: snuffing out jobs or tolerating extinction. But in truth the ruckus around it only accelerated changes already afoot. Timber jobs had been declining and wages shrinking since the 1970s, due largely to automation, and even as timber corporations shut down mills they reaped record profits shipping raw logs to Japan. Today a leaner timber industry, retooled for second-growth trees, shares space in a more diversified Northwest economy with a growing high-tech sector. A few rural communities are still limping, but job retraining and forest restoration have patched together a net job increase even in the most timber-dependent counties. The economy is humming, the job-loss doomsayers loudly silent.

As for the owl, it seems enough old growth remains to ensure its survival — enough to share, even, with flightless two-legged visitors who also like their forest tall, still, and mossy-trunked.

Photograph by William Coupon

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