The Forest and the Trees

Litigation to save the northern spotted owl from extinction slowed the rate of logging dramatically in the nick of time.


Starting after World War II, and accelerating rapidly with the administration of Ronald Reagan, the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest were being felled at a rate that would seem to make them disappear altogether within decades. Litigation to save the northern spotted owl from extinction slowed the rate of logging dramatically in the nick of time.

Once upon a time a vast blanket of ancient forest draped across the Pacific Northwest. Seventeen million acres of huge trees presided over a rich array of plants, animals, fish, insects, and, of course, people. The forests, mostly on the west side of the picket line of old volcanoes known as the Cascades, were moist, the ground largely hidden under a verdant, spongy layer of mosses, ferns, and other plants. It was a complex mix of interdependent creatures.

By the 1980s, the 17 million acres had dwindled to three or four million as trees were felled and the old forests were replanted like a row crop. The rich and interdependent diversity these forest once started to unravel. The poster child for this looming problem was the northern spotted owl, a bird that was scarcely known until a scientist named Eric Forsman began to study them carefully. Forsman found that the owl’s numbers had declined sharply, that the owl needed the wide variety of prey and nesting opportunities provided by old-growth forests — and the cover that provided protection from competitors, but that these forests and many of the creatures that depended on them were rapidly disappearing along with the owl. He published studies that were largely ignored.

Earthjustice entered the picture in 1987 with a petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service asking that the owl be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The agency — even though most of its own scientists believed the owl to be in serious trouble — refused. So attorneys Vic Sher and Todd True filed the first of many federal-court lawsuits aimed at protecting the owl and its home. The government argued that a scientist named Mark Boyce thought the owl was doing just fine. Andy Stahl of Earthjustice phoned Boyce, who thought nothing of the sort and said so.  The Court opined that the “Service disregarded all the expert opinion [about the owl], including that of its own experts . . .” and ordered the agency to follow the science.  Case closed.

But it was only the beginning. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which manage the old-growth stand that remain on federal lands, were anything but vigorous in protecting the owls’ habitat. At the behest of political leaders, they kept offering more and more old trees for sale, and the lawyers were forced to return to court again and again to block the sales. At one point, in May 1991, Judge William Dwyer, a Reagan appointee, issued a sweeping injunction that stopped virtually all new timber sales in spotted owl habitat.  In a sharp rebuke to the government the Judge said, “The most recent violations [of the forest management law] exemplifies a deliberate and systematic refusal by the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to comply with the laws protecting wildlife.”

Apparently unfazed by this extraordinary language, the government then tried an emergency end-run of the law. It called for a meeting of the Endangered Species Committee (often referred to as the God Squad), an ad hoc group of cabinet secretaries and agency heads that has the power to override the law if the situation is sufficiently dire. The Bureau of Land Management, claiming that mills were closing owing to a lack of timber, proposed to allow 40-odd timber sales in owl habitat in western Oregon to proceed notwithstanding a finding by scientists that the sales would jeopardize the continued existence of the owl! Earthjustice, on behalf of much of the conservation movement, opposed the proposal. The squad thought it over and decided to let only 14 sales go forward. Sher and True got wind of illegal arm-twisting by the White House to get two squad members to vote for an exemption. They went back to court to try to uncover these misdeeds and the sales were put on hold.

Before anything more happened, the Clinton administration took office and, fulfilling a campaign promise, the president held a day-long meeting in Portland with loggers, millworkers, scientists, politicians, fishermen, conservationists, and others to try to find a solution that would protect all of the forest’s values and uses. What grew out of that day in April 2002 was the Northwest Forest Plan, the first broadscale attempt to apply the principles of what was being called “ecosystem management,” a new way of looking at the forest as the complex and interdependent system it is.

Even though the plan reduced logging on federal lands by almost 80 percent, it still left more than a million acres of old growth available for cutting.  Many conservation groups objected and Earthjustice challenged the plan in court on their behalf. After extensive briefing and argument, the judge upheld the plan but cautioned that it was the bare minimum protection the law required. Any backsliding would violate the law.

The backsliding began almost immediately, and the litigation struggle has continued, though at a lower pitch, ever since. Despite special legislation by Congress in 1995 to override the environmental laws — the so-called “Logging Without Laws” rider, the astronomical logging levels reached during the Reagan administration have never been approached since, and certainly won’t be again.

Predictions of economic disaster if old-growth logging were limited failed to come true. The number of jobs in logging and wood processing certainly declined, but that was due as much to automation as it was to a decline in the wood supply. Overall, as studies by the economists at ECONorthwest found, the economy in Oregon and Washington fared better than the overall economy of the rest of the country in the mid ‘nineties.

The second Bush administration, meanwhile, has used the pretext of post-fire salvage logging to try to invade old-growth stands here and there, the biggest and most egregious example being in the Siskiyou National Forest in southern Oregon. As this was being written (early 2005), the courts were hearing the challenges to this proposal.

Meanwhile, under the second Bush administration, the Forest Service has been busy trying to amend and even repeal the forest protection requirements of the Northwest Forest Plan, especially the that protect clean water and streams that support wild salmon.  Earthjustice has been forced to go to court to stop this attempted rollback of protection for the old forests. 

As long as massive trees stand there will be people who want to cut them down and earn large profits from selling their wood. And as long as those trees stand, there will be people who rise to defend them and all the diversity, wonder and inspiration they represent.