Spotted Owl Prompts Old-Growth Timber Controversy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the northern spotted owl was officially listed as an endangered species, the habitat protection required by the designation forced drastic reductions in the logging of Pacific Northwest old-growth forests.

Summary of Event

On June 25, 1990, the cover of Time magazine featured an illustration of the northern spotted owl, an indication of the national significance of the controversy swirling around this small bird. The Pacific Northwest timber industry warned that classifying the owl as an endangered species and thus requiring protection of its habitat would cause the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and would make the loggers, millworkers, and rural communities of the region endangered species themselves. At the same time, environmentalists cautioned that the loss of the owl would signal the end of the spectacular, centuries-old forest ecosystem for which the region was famous; the owl’s habitat was one of the richest and most productive forests in the world. Northern spotted owls Spotted owls Wildlife conservation Endangered species;northern spotted owl Timber industry Birds, protection Forest management Old-growth forests[Old growth forests] [kw]Spotted Owl Prompts Old-Growth Timber Controversy (July 23, 1990) [kw]Owl Prompts Old-Growth Timber Controversy, Spotted (July 23, 1990) [kw]Timber Controversy, Spotted Owl Prompts Old-Growth (July 23, 1990) [kw]Controversy, Spotted Owl Prompts Old-Growth Timber (July 23, 1990) Northern spotted owls Spotted owls Wildlife conservation Endangered species;northern spotted owl Timber industry Birds, protection Forest management Old-growth forests[Old growth forests] [g]North America;July 23, 1990: Spotted Owl Prompts Old-Growth Timber Controversy[07820] [g]United States;July 23, 1990: Spotted Owl Prompts Old-Growth Timber Controversy[07820] [g]Canada;July 23, 1990: Spotted Owl Prompts Old-Growth Timber Controversy[07820] [c]Animals and endangered species;July 23, 1990: Spotted Owl Prompts Old-Growth Timber Controversy[07820] [c]Natural resources;July 23, 1990: Spotted Owl Prompts Old-Growth Timber Controversy[07820] Forsman, Eric Franklin, Jerry Maser, Chris Zilly, Thomas Dwyer, William

The fight over the old-growth forest bubbled to the surface of the U.S. media in the mid-1980’s, but the groundwork was laid a decade before. In the early 1970’s, wildlife biologist Eric Forsman, then a student at Oregon State University, became interested in the small, rare owl that would come to have enormous impact on the culture and the economy of the Northwest. The northern spotted owl, which was the object of only twenty-five confirmed sightings before Forsman began his studies, was found almost exclusively in the uncut, old-growth forest. The U.S. Forest Service Forest Service, U.S. later declared the bird an indicator species, a representative of the health of the entire old-growth ecosystem.

Also in the 1970’s, the scientific community was beginning to develop an interest in the old-growth forest ecosystem itself. Jerry Franklin, a Forest Service biologist, led a team of researchers that produced the 1981 publication Ecological Characteristics of Old-Growth Douglas-Fir Forests. This Forest Service document was the first to identify and define the factors that make these forests unique and contradicted the attitude among many forest scientists that old-growth forests are biological deserts made up primarily of dead and dying trees. Chris Maser, a Bureau of Land Management biologist and a coauthor of the report, took the information beyond the scientific community and made public presentations explaining the complex interworkings of old-growth forests. He demonstrated how the interrelationships among the insects, mammals, trees, rotting logs, and even fungus of old-growth systems make these forests irreplaceable.

Environmentalists had long appreciated old-growth forests for their scenic and spiritual values. Many saw the great age of the trees in such forests, from two hundred to as much as one thousand years, as reason enough for protection. Old-growth forests were nevertheless being cut down at alarming rates, and environmentalists’ aesthetic arguments carried little weight against the pragmatic economic reasoning of the timber industry and the Forest Service. Environmentalists seized on the emerging scientific data and, replacing the pejorative term “old-growth forests” with “ancient forests,” embarked on a public education and political campaign to reduce logging and preserve as much of the remaining old forests as possible.

The timber industry had a different opinion of old-growth forests. The trees in such forests had grown slowly in dense stands, resulting in tall, straight trunks with few branches near the ground. This growth produced fine-grained lumber with few knots, a product prized by woodworkers the world over. At the same time, the forests often contained standing dead or dying trees, as well as many logs slowly decaying on the ground. The industry saw this as wasteful and lamented the loss of valuable lumber. In addition, the old trees were often beyond the age of mean annual increase; that is, the growth of the trees had slowed, and a particular piece of ground was not producing wood fiber as fast as it could with younger trees. Despite its beauty, old-growth wood, to the loggers and millworkers of the Northwest, was detritus to be cleared off the land; the timber industry argued that this would make the best use of fine wood before it rotted and make way for a second-growth forest of young, faster-growing trees.

The forest-products industry, having cut most of the trees on its privately owned land, had become increasingly dependent for its raw materials on the national forests, public land managed by the Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since the end of World War II, the timber companies’ annual harvest from the national forests in the Oregon and Washington region had increased fivefold, from 900 million board feet in 1946 to more than 5 billion board feet in 1986.

The northern spotted owl became an object of national controversy in the 1990’s after it was listed as an endangered species, resulting in logging cutbacks of its old-growth forest habitat.

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

As the intensity of the controversy about the logging of old-growth forests increased, media attention was drawn to the issue by the activities of radical environmentalist groups such as the loosely organized Earth First! Protesters from Earth First! Earth First! disabled logging equipment, formed roadblocks, and camped high up in trees that were scheduled for cutting. These techniques rarely did more than delay logging for a few days, but they succeeded in making the clear-cutting of areas such as Millennium Grove, Millennium Grove a stand of trees nearly one thousand years old, items on the local television news.

The major national environmental groups worked more quietly, their members pressing the government to reduce the annual harvest in the national forests. In spite of these attempts, the U.S. Congress, at the behest of senators and representatives from the Pacific Northwest, ordered the Forest Service, through the appropriations process, to cut even more timber than the agency recommended. Then, in 1986, a previously unknown organization based in Massachusetts, GreenWorld, GreenWorld[Greenworld] petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. to list the northern spotted owl as endangered. The initial report from the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended against listing the bird, but environmentalists protested and then sued, claiming undue pressure from Ronald Reagan’s presidential administration. Judge Thomas Zilly of the U.S. district court agreed, forcing the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider. Finally, on July 23, 1990, the northern spotted owl was officially listed as an endangered species, triggering major transformations in the management of western forestlands.

Old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest are the only habitat for not only the famous northern spotted owl but also a host of other wildlife species.


After the listing of the northern spotted owl as an endangered species, the Forest Service and the timber industry were left in a quandary. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, contrary to its direction in such matters, failed to designate the critical habitat requirements. The Forest Service moved forward tentatively, allowing limited harvesting and promising to abide by the guidelines for protection of the owl habitat laid down in a report issued by the Interagency Scientific Committee (also known as the Thomas Committee, for its chairman, Jack Ward Thomas). This document, released a few months before the listing of the spotted owl, mapped out 7.7 million acres of old-growth forest that should be off-limits to logging.

In May, 1991, after nearly one year of continued appeals and legal challenges to individual timber sales, Judge William Dwyer of the U.S. district court placed an injunction on all logging in spotted owl habitat in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. This injunction halted logging in 80 percent of the seventeen national forests in the region and continued in effect until the Forest Service implemented a legal protection plan for the spotted owl, which it was required to do by March, 1992. That same spring, the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that more than eleven million acres be preserved as habitat for the owl.

One of the immediate reactions to this recommendation was a flurry of bills in Congress attempting to legislate a solution. Proposals varied from environmentalist-supported bills that would create vast ancient-forest reserves to industry-supported bills that would mandate minimum harvest levels and amend the Endangered Species Act to take economic factors into account when species protection was considered. The Endangered Species Committee was also called upon to consider certain timber sales and groups of sales. This committee, made up of highly placed administration officials, had the power to exempt certain projects from Endangered Species Act restrictions and thus was dubbed “the God Squad” for its power over the life and death of species.

The predicted crash in employment in the timber industry, which had been estimated to eliminate up to ninety-three thousand jobs, did not occur immediately, and industry support among the general public was further weakened. Up to three years’ worth of timber had already been sold prior to Judge Dwyer’s injunction, and harvesting of these sales was allowed to continue, keeping the industry busy in the years following the shutdown of the forests. Economic studies showed that a significant proportion of the job losses in the timber industry during this time resulted from automation, raw log exports, and natural fluctuations of the economy rather than from restrictions on logging in old-growth forests.

Meanwhile, more forest-dependent species were added to the endangered species list. These included the marbled murrelet, a seabird that requires large, old trees for nesting, and several runs of wild salmon that need the clean, clear water provided by unlogged forests.

In the early summer of 1993, when the deadline for the implementation of an owl protection plan had passed, President Bill Clinton Clinton, Bill [p]Clinton, Bill;environmental policy convened the Portland Timber Summit Portland Timber Summit (1993) in Oregon to consider a solution. This unprecedented conference brought the president, vice president, and leading cabinet officials together with industry, business, environmental, and Native American leaders. From the information gathered at this two-day meeting, the Clinton administration formulated a range of proposals; among these, the administration favored what it called Option 9, a broad-based plan for managing the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Although approved by Judge Dwyer in May, 1994, the plan satisfied neither environmental nor timber interests and was immediately challenged in court, perpetuating the deadlock.

Another sweeping shift that resulted from the furor over the spotted owl was a change in direction of the Forest Service itself. Jack Ward Thomas, Thomas, Jack Ward the wildlife biologist who headed the Interagency Scientific Committee in 1989, was appointed chief of the Forest Service in 1993, marking the first time that a person other than a career administrator or timber planner had held the post. The appointment of a wildlife biologist to this important position signaled a significant change in Forest Service policy, from primary concern with the production of timber to dedication to managing the broad spectrum of issues related to the public forests.

The timber industry did indeed go through tough times, as the steel industry had before it. Mills were closed and jobs were lost as the industry struggled to adapt to using different sources of timber and smaller trees to process. Much of the private and state land that had been replanted in earlier decades was near harvest age, however, and because much of it was not suitable or designated for owl habitat, it would be available for cutting in a few years. Some experts predicted that cutting levels on all lands could soon reach historic highs.

By the mid-1990’s, it appeared that a last-minute bargain with nature had been struck. Although 90 percent of the original old-growth forest had been cut down in the previous 150 years, environmentalists hoped that the last 10 percent could sustain viable stands of natural forest so that the old-growth ecosystem could survive to reveal its values and secrets and teach lessons about interconnection and interdependence. The timber industry continued to provide wood products to the world, although with different methods and materials. The spotted owl would probably survive, with just enough habitat left to hunt, nest, and rear its young as it had for uncounted generations. Northern spotted owls Spotted owls Wildlife conservation Endangered species;northern spotted owl Timber industry Birds, protection Forest management Old-growth forests[Old growth forests]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dietrich, William. The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Excellent study of the old-growth issue traces the background and consequences of the listing of the spotted owl as an endangered species. Well written, with sensitivity for both the loggers and the forest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ervin, Keith. Fragile Majesty: The Battle for North America’s Last Great Forest. Seattle: Mountaineers, 1989. Focuses on the forest management controversies in Washington State, interspersing chapters on history and technical details with first-person observations of the forest and the environmentalists and timber workers at odds over it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gup, Ted. “Owl Versus Man.” Time, June 25, 1990, 54-64. Presents a concise and informative overview of the issue at the time of the owl’s listing as an endangered species.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelly, David, and Gary Braasch. Secrets of the Old Growth Forest. Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1988. First of the popular books about old-growth forests contains many excellent photographs and abundant text to introduce the reader to the intricacies of the ecosystem and the issues surrounding it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maser, Chris. Forest Primeval: The Natural History of an Ancient Forest. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001. “Biography” of an old-growth forest traces the development of a fictional stand of trees from its germination after a fire in 988 c.e. to the twentieth century against the background of human history. Clearly explains the biological functioning of the ecosystem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Siedeman, David. Showdown at Opal Creek: The Battle for America’s Last Wilderness. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1993. Presents an interesting microcosm of the issue by examining the personalities and the relationship of two good friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the controversy over saving one old-growth forest in Oregon. Puts very human faces on both sides of this contemporary “civil war.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stout, Benjamin. The Northern Spotted Owl: An Oregon View, 1975-2002. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford, 2006. Examines the controversy surrounding the protection of the northern spotted owl and its habitat and the negative effects such protection had on local Oregon communities.

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