Spanish philosopher George Santayana remarked, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Unfortunately, we tend to have short memories about difficult times in our history that divide our communities.
During “the timber wars,” also known as “the spotted-owl wars,” the period from roughly the late 1980s to the mid-2000s, loggers and environmentalists first fought over the listing of the diminutive northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act, and then over the management of the owl’s ancient forest habitat on public lands. Congress even suspended the application of environmental laws to timber harvest in the Northwest, forcing environmentalists to retreat to the forests we love, to occupy the canopies of trees older than our nation to prevent their felling to the ax.
But these measures could not forestall the inevitable court-ordered injunctions that followed what Washington District Court Judge William Dwyer called “a deliberate and systematic refusal … by higher authorities in the executive branch of government … to comply with the laws protecting wildlife.”
In 1994, President Bill Clinton brokered an uneasy truce by directing federal land and wildlife managers to work together on what would become the Northwest Forest Plan. This compromise left spotted-owl war combatants grumbling about broken promises and missed opportunities.
But since then, the spotted-owl wars have cooled. Many stakeholders have laid down their weapons of war and have chosen instead to sit around a table and collaborate on public forest management. These discussions have increased the pace, scale and quality of forest restoration in our region, resulting in not only improved forest health but also community socioeconomic resilience. Although much work remains, these efforts have reduced wildfire risk, improved wildlife habitat and increased water quality throughout the Pacific Northwest.
But now all that is likely to change.
In an overtly political decision, the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Jan. 13 stripped protections for the northern spotted owl from 3.4 million acres of federal forestlands. Career agency biologists have for years warned that the spotted owl — despite herculean efforts — continues to slide toward extinction. Fewer and fewer spotted owls are reproducing at sufficient rates to sustain the species, which is functionally extinct in the northern part of its range in Canada. The owl is also threatened by the legacy effects of past timber harvest, wildfire and its fierce competitor, the barred owl. Just weeks ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the spotted owl should be given more protection by uplisting it from threatened to endangered.
Eliminating 42% of spotted owl critical habitat results from a settlement between the timber industry and the Trump administration. In 2012, the industry challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of roughly 9 million acres of critical habitat. That argument found a sympathetic ear in this lame-duck administration, which worked quickly in its final days to deliver yet another sweetheart settlement deal to a favored political ally.
We’ve been here before. The timber industry fought tooth and nail against listing the spotted owl in 1990, fought each and every critical habitat designation, unlawfully influenced the owl’s recovery plan in the mid-2000s, and inked another sweetheart settlement agreement with the second Bush administration to undermine Northwest Forest Plan protections. Each time, the courts were called in to direct federal forest management, and each time, the uncertainty created by these wild, political swings caused chaos in rural, timber-dependent communities and distracted from the real need for forest restoration.
So here we are again. Political actors are catering to the timber industry and its shortsighted focus on circumventing the best available science and environmental laws at the expense of the Pacific Northwest’s iconic northern spotted owl. We absolutely can, and do, have a sustainable timber industry and protections for wildlife where successful collaborative efforts have made that possible.
But reigniting the Spotted Owl Wars by callously eliminating habitat essential to preventing the owl’s extinction will make that good work next to impossible. This decision will upset the careful balance Northwesterners have struck between forest management and wildlife protection, forcing advocates, once again, to return to the courtroom for battle.
As American philosopher Yogi Berra said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”