Outside magazine, October 1997
Environmental battles can turn on the most curious things
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 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
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
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