Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center , 325 E. 25th St. , Baltimore , MD 21218 . Email: mobuszewski2001 [at] comcast [dot] net.
MET in person, the northern spotted owl seems an unlikely casus belli. Last Friday, the Woodland Park Zoo here allowed me a private audience with its three captive owls, a mating pair and a lone elderly female, each of whom resembled a miniature, flecked-brown overcoat of Harris tweed. Their eyes — unlike the eyes of most owls, which are bright yellow — were the color of dark chocolate. Blinking slowly, rooted to their perches, they looked more wistful than wise, dreaming, perhaps, of flying squirrels, on which they like to dine in the wild, or of extinction, which still appears their likeliest fate.
The fast-disappearing owl was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act 20 years ago last week. At the time, it was the ideal “indicator species” of the health of Northwest old-growth forest habitat — the squelchy, dank-smelling, multistory ecosystem, where the ground is strewn with rotting ancient trees, called “snags” and “nurse logs,” and the jungled undergrowth of ferns, vines, berries, moss and fungi shelters a great multitude of creatures, from bears and cougars to newts and banana slugs. It was this irreplaceable ecosystem, centuries in the making, that environmentalists were really trying to protect under the terms of the act (whose first declared purpose is to conserve the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species depend); and the owl was their best available legal tool.
Environmentalists saw the land as a sacred space, to be venerated and conserved in honor of what Emerson called “the occult relation between man and the vegetable.” But for the timber industry, long accustomed to clear-cutting in federal forests, it was a commodity, a renewable resource to be cut down, regrown and cut down again. There was no reconciling the two philosophies. On one side, the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks, the inviolate wilderness; on the other, people and their histories and traditions, jobs, communities, an economy based entirely on timber.
When the owl was listed, the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest was already facing difficulties for economic reasons, but in the ailing milling and logging towns, the hapless owl was seized on as the scapegoat. In January 1991, an Olympic National Park ranger found a spotted owl nailed to a sign by the road to the visitor center, a red-tipped kitchen match protruding from its breast, and a typewritten note attached to the corpse. “If you think your parks and wilderness don’t have enough of these suckers, plant this one,” it read. “They talk of social unrest. The match has yet to be struck.”
The author left no doubt as to whom he meant by “you”: park visitors from the city, the well-heeled fleece and Birkenstock crowd, with new S.U.V.’s and an unforgivable air of entitlement to the countryside (“your parks and wilderness,” as the author jeered). The listing of the spotted owl opened a new front in this old class war, in which each side painted an equally contemptuous caricature of the other, as if pitting Emerson (that effete, granola-eating, over-educated New Englander) against Paul Bunyan (that unthinking and rapacious Western tough).
In 1993, Bill Clinton presided over the “timber summit” in Portland, Ore., where both sides laid out their grievances — loggers fearful of losing their jobs to the owl, environmentalists equally fearful of losing the owl’s unique habitat to the chainsaw. A year later, the Northwest Forest Plan came into effect, protecting around 20 million acres of federal land from logging, and offering financial compensation and job retraining to the timber towns. As mill after mill closed, the stench of steam and pulp vanished from the Northwestern air; trucks carrying massive tree trunks, which used to cause mile-long tailbacks on the Olympic Peninsula, became rarities; and the ubiquitous slow-moving tugboats, dragging rafts of freshly felled firs, gradually faded from view on Puget Sound.
But none of this helped the spotted owls. The decline in their numbers grew steeper. Field biologists counted ever fewer calls (an unmelodious, four-note woo-woo-woo-woo, that one might mimic with short blasts on a World Cup vuvuzela), and found more and more deserted nests.
The main cause of their dwindling population from 1994 to now has been not human activity but pale-faced barred owls — the spotted owls’ bigger and more adaptable close cousins, who have been migrating into Northwestern forests and driving their smaller relatives from their ancestral territory. Not for the first time, Northwestern natives found themselves muscled off their home turf by more aggressive, resourceful and versatile newcomers from back East.
When barred owls meet spotted owls, sometimes they kill and eat them; more uncommonly, they mate. The lighter male spotted owl climbs aboard the female barred owl, and they exchange a vent-to-vent “cloacal kiss” lasting a few seconds. The rare offspring from such unions, called sparred owls, are diluting what is left of the spotted owl gene pool, even as the great horned owl feeds greedily on spotted owl chicks.
But although the spotted owl is more seriously endangered now than it was in 1990, its old-growth forest habitat is safer, healthier and larger than it was then. So after all, the endangered species listing of the owl has done the job for which it was primarily designed. This isn’t, as it might seem at first glance, a Pyrrhic victory, but a real success story — at least from one side’s point of view.
The battle over the owl has been just one engagement in the war over nature in the Northwest, whose present main theater of operations is a Portland courtroom in which the interminable case of the Endangered Salmon v. Four Hydroelectric Dams on the Snake River is being acrimoniously fought along the same lines. The struggle has set class against class and countryside against city, and turned lifelong rural Democrats into staunch Republicans.
In the old timber towns, many people still echo the August 1994 speech by Slade Gorton, Republican of Washington, to the Senate on the human cost of the spotted owl listing: “The U.S. government, driven by sophisticated, well-financed national environmental organizations and supported by the media and urban opinion leaders, has betrayed rural communities and destroyed — yes, destroyed — the lives and careers of tens of thousands of honest working families in the Pacific Northwest.” Or, as the city attorney for Forks, Wash., (once a roaring town that declared itself the Logging Capital of the World) said when I called to remind him of last week’s anniversary: “That’s not a day we celebrate. At any time.”
Yet I’ve met others in Forks who say that the listing of the spotted owl is, unexpectedly, turning out to be a blessing, bringing more retirees to live there, more visiting hikers, hunters, surfers, birders and fly fishermen, and their money. The forest’s recovery is not without economic benefit to the people who live on its edges. For all that the timber communities have lost, there are signs that the hated environmentalists (“Are you an environmentalist? Or do you work for a living?” as the bumper stickers said) may have helped regenerate the very places they were once said to have ruined.
Jonathan Raban is the author of the forthcoming “Driving Home: An American Scrapbook.”
Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company
Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs
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