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ESA Advocate: Kristen Boyles' Forests of Feathers

After a long day of diving for food in the cold ocean waters of the Pacific Northwest, the marbled murrelet flies inland at dusk to feed and care for its single chick high up in an old-growth tree. Lots of murrelets need lots of ancient trees—forests of them, says Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice attorney who has spent most of her career using the Endangered Species Act to protect species like the murrelet, salmon, and another ancient forest denizen, the northern spotted owl.

It took decades of courtroom battles to finally protect the old-growth forest habitat the spotted owl needs to survive. The ESA was only one of the legal tools used to end rampant clear-cut logging of federal public forests, but it has always been the most controversial. By the mid-1990s, the ESA protected the owl and its habitat, and President Clinton championed the Northwest Forest Plan—the first, true regional ecosystem plan for federal lands. The plan put balance back into management of these lands, which for years had been valued only as timber producers.

Timber interests fought back during the Bush administration, which slashed the amount of protected owl habitat and sought to undo the scientific standards of the Northwest Forest Plan.

In November 2012, Boyles and her clients won in court, resulting in the protection of 9.6 million acres of forest for the threatened northern spotted owl across federal lands in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Unfortunately, the owls outside of those federally owned lands aren't so lucky. On state and private lands in Washington and Oregon, without Northwest Forest Plan protections, owl populations continue to decline.

Boyles says the murrelet is her favorite species. "They are diving seabirds that nest inland in old-growth forests. Since murrelets don't actually build a nest, they lay a single egg at the crook of a branch where the branch meets the tree—meaning it has to be a fairly large tree," says Boyles.

"The chicks, with their seabird webbed feet, sit hundreds of feet up and tens of miles away from the ocean, waiting for fish from their parents. It's a fascinating bird that connects forests and oceans, fins and feathers."

In September 2013, a federal court rejected claims in a timber industry lawsuit that sought to expand logging of the seabird's old-growth habitat. This was the timber industry's fourth attempt in the past decade to eliminate the murrelet's ESA protections.

Says Boyles, "Nothing would make me happier than knowing that murrelets have recovered so they don't need continued protection. Until then, we'll keep fighting to keep murrelets in our corner of the world."

Written by Kari Birdseye.
Published in the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine, Winter 2013 issue.