Owl Wars: The Battle for Northwest Forests (and Owls)


Have we saved the Northern Spotted Owl yet? Apparently not. But there may be a better way than shooting the rival owls.

The landmark Northwest Forest Plan, which was widely expected to save the owl, has just turned 30 years old.  And yet, right now, because larger, more aggressive barred owls native to the east coast have been displacing spotted owls from their old-growth habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is considering a plan to kill by shotguns barred owls by the thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands.  The alternative, Forest Plan or not, may be the Northern Spotted Owl’s extinction. And oh, by the way, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is currently amending the 30-year-old forest plan.

For anyone who wasn’t following the news 30 years ago, the high-profile battle over saving the Northern Spotted Owl and the old-growth forests in which these owls live  was arguably the bitterest and most significant environmental conflict of the late 20th century. 

For most Americans, the Northern Spotted Owl controversy came out of the blue – or out of the shadows cast by the giant conifers among which these owls hunted wood rats and flying squirrels and built their nests.  Virtually no one knew much about the owl.  

Then Oregon State University graduate student — now retired as a Forest Service biologist — Eric Forsman found that spotted owls weren’t scared of humans.  Hold out a mouse, and a male would fly down and take it from your hand. Then the bird would fly back to its nest. 

That trait made it easy to locate nests.  It also made it easy to locate future timber sales: virtually every time, Forsman would find that the nest tree itself or at least a lot of big trees in the neighborhood were destined for the chopping block.  So details about the spotted owl’s life and details about the threats it faced became known more or less simultaneously.

Not that this moved the FWS. When the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, the spotted owl made the list as a candidate species, but the feds didn’t list it.  Nevertheless, Oregon and Washington wildlife agencies eventually did list it, and the feds came up with a plan to protect some “Spotted Owl Habitat Areas” in federal forests.

The George H.W. Bush administration – at least the portion of it that dealt with the national forests – really, really didn’t want to follow the law.  It didn’t want to list the spotted owls as threatened or endangered.  It did not want to set aside enough forest habitat to give the owls a reasonable chance of survival.  But the federal courts gave it no choice  First, U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly ruled that refusal to list the owl was arbitrary and capricious. Judge Zilly didn’t mince words, saying that the Forest Service had ”disregarded all the expert opinion on population viability, including that of its own experts, that the owl is facing extinction.” The owl was eventually listed as threatened in 1990.

Even now, when the Northern Spotted Owl is clearly an endangered species, the feds have never gone beyond “threatened.” Given the owl’s documented decline and bleak future, why hasn’t the government upgraded its status? 

The FWS has conceded that the owl is indeed endangered. The agency has said in a Federal Register notice that “the stressors acting on the subspecies and its habitat, particularly range-wide competition from the non-native barred owl and high-severity wildfire, are of such imminence, intensity, and magnitude to indicate that the northern spotted owl is now in danger of extinction throughout all of its range.” 

But the feds didn’t upgrade the listing.  Rather, it ruled that an “endangered” listing was “warranted but precluded. “In other words, yes, the owl is endangered but FWS has a lot on its plate and (despite the owl’s historical significance, not to mention how much the nation has invested in trying to save it), the bird will just have to take a number and wait in line.  Patience may be a virtue, though it’s probably not a good survival strategy.)

But that listing wasn’t the year’s big news. In April, an Interagency Scientific Committee To Address the Conservation of the Northern Spotted Owl  – chaired by the Forest Service’s senior wildlife biologist, Jack Ward Thomas, and known generally as the Thomas committee – had already grabbed headlines with a strategy  that called for setting aside for the owl’s survival at least 7.7 million acres (1.9 million of which were already protected as parks or wilderness).  

That’s when the serious “owl wars” really began. Who won?

Judge Zilly’s decision was hardly the end of the government’s legal setbacks. The National Forest Management Act required the Forest Service to keep viable populations of the vertebrates found in every national forest.  The late US District Judge William Dwyer found that the Forest Service had violated that law.  He enjoined any future national forest timber sales in the range of the spotted owl until the feds adopted a plan that would protect the remaining owls.  Judge Dwyer, too, had some choice words about the agency’s contempt for the law. “The records of this case,” he said, “show a remarkable series of violations of the environmental laws.”

The Forest Service subsequently said it would enact the Thomas Committee’s recommendations.  That might have been OK for the owls, but Dwyer cited the agency’s scientific findings that it wouldn’t do much for some of the other vertebrate series that the government was required to protect.  The injunction remained. 

 So a new group, a four-member Scientific Advisory Team, known generally as the Gang of Four – which included Thomas and University of Washington forestry professor Jerry Franklin – looked at how well the Thomas Committee recommendations would protect other old-growth-dwelling species. The Four’s conclusion: not very well at all.

During the 1992 Presidential campaign, Bill Clinton said that if elected, he’d quickly convene a “forest summit” to resolve the conflict.  The summit was somehow demoted to a “forest conference,” but true to his word in early 1993 Clinton, Vice-president Al Gore, and five cabinet members showed up at the Portland convention center to spend all day listening to scientists, loggers, environmentalists, small-town officials, and other interested parties talk about the owl, the forests, and the milltown economies.  

In preparation for the conference, a new committee chaired by Thomas had come up with a menu of options for saving spotted owls and other old-growth-dependent and -associated species. The administration subsequently picked a compromise approach, which became the Northwest Forest Plan.  

That 1994 plan called for preserving less old growth than environmental groups wanted, much more than the industry wanted. Neither side liked it, so groups on both sides sued.  But Dwyer said the new plan would pass muster, and he lifted the injunction.  The group FSEEE, which works to protect national forests and reform the Forest Service, has observed that Clinton “essentially imposed the Plan on the Forest Service and other reluctant federal agencies.”  By the time the plan was adopted, Thomas had already been named chief of the Forest Service

Needless to say, no one has lived happily ever after.

Not even all the big trees: The plan wasn’t designed to save every remaining old-growth tree.  It established Late Successional Reserves (LSRs) within which old and mature trees wouldn’t be cut, but embedded the reserves with a “matrix” within which logging was allowed.  Oregon’s Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield reportedly made sure a lot of that matrix was in his home state.  “Age offers no protection in Matrix,” the environmental group Oregon Wild says on its website. “400-year-old trees are fair game for logging.”  Beyond that, the group says, “the federal agencies’ focus on timber production means that the restoration of LSR forests is not being done to its full potential.”

In 2004, ten years after the plan went into effect, the 9th Circuit found federal agencies had allowed logging in 82,000 acres of owl habitat.

Only a year after the plan was adopted in 1994, Congress passed the so-called “salvage rider,” pushed by Washington’s late Republican Sen. Slade Gorton and other regional Republican leaders. That rider ostensibly just permitted logging of dead and diseased trees to promote forest health but in fact contained a paragraph that permitted logging in otherwise protected areas without environmental restraint for the next 18 months. The administration claimed it had been misled about the rider’s effects. Gorton, who did not apologize for the rider, said that the White House had been fully informed.

The George W. Bush administration pushed the idea that Clinton’s pie-in-the-sky assurance that loggers could harvest a tad more than 1 billion board feet a year from Northwestern federal forests was an ironclad binding promise – and Bush’s Forest Service intended to make good on it. Thomas said that number had never been realistic.  But Undersecretary of Agriculture for Resources and the Environment Mark Ray noted that Thomas hadn’t said so at the time.  Clinton had certainly used that figure. “We’re trying to go back to those original promises,” Ray told The Seattle Times.

Much to many people’s surprise, when the Bush administration prepared a status review on the spotted owl, it realistically documented the population’s decline and the risks the owls faced.  When it came time to prepare a recovery plan, though, the Bush administration tried to fudge the science. It not only rushed the process but also told the committee preparing the plan to label the barred owl as the only major threat. That ignored  the effect of past and current habitat loss.

The Obama administration didn’t try push the plan through.  Instead, it told a federal judge that “an investigative report issued by the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior on Dec. 15, 2008 concluded that former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald, acting alone or in concert with other Department of the Interior officials, took actions that potentially jeopardized the decisional process in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan for the northern spotted owl.”

And then, in Donald Trump’s final hours as President, he slashed the owl’s critical habitat by nearly one-third.  Biden quickly restored most of it.  If Trump wins again, that and a lot of other things may go out the White House window.

So has the forest plan succeeded or failed?

The quick but deeply unsatisfying answer is that it’s too soon to tell. It’s a 100-year plan. The people who drew up the plan weren’t clairvoyant.  They didn’t foresee climate change arriving so visibly so soon.  They didn’t envision – or want to envision — barred owls descending like a plague.  Their plan hasn’t saved the spotted owl – although the owl hasn’t gone extinct – but the Northwest Forest Plan was always about protecting habitat for hundreds of species that rely on or are frequently found in the Northwest’s old-growth forests. 

Those early Clinton years were a good time to take a broader look at the Northwestern ecosystem – and a hard time in which to ignore it. Just months before the Portland conference, the federal government had listed the marbled murrelet, which fish out at sea but nest in old-growth trees near the shore.  The year before, the first Washington and Oregon salmon populations – both in the Snake River – had been listed. 

It remains the largest ecosystem management plan in the world.  Last summer, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, the Forest Service, and Oregon State University reported “steady improvements in watershed condition” thanks to “broad-scale forest recovery combined with targeted forest, road, and stream management under the Northwest Forest Plan.” 

Of course, most people thought the Plan was about saving spotted owls (and forest products jobs.) Geographically, the boundaries of the plan match the boundaries of the Northern Spotted Owl’s range. And without the legal and political battles over the owl, the plan would not exist.

In addition to saving owls and other forest creatures, the Clinton administration talked about saving milltown economies.  The rhetoric was probably sincere but delusional – as a lot of people in those communities no doubt knew.

 Traditional jobs in the woods and mills have been disappearing for a long time.  In Grays Harbor County, the timber harvest peaked in 1929.  Ken Kesey’s fine novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, both published in the early 1960s, dealt with characters left adrift in a Northwestern economy that no longer had places for them. From 1965 to 1985, the number of Northwestern mills dropped by 44 percent. The recession of the early 1980s shuttered a lot of mills; those that reopened cut more wood with fewer workers.

When the late Booth Gardner became Washington’s governor in 1985, he talked earnestly about reviving mill town economies.  But he didn’t know how to do it, and it didn’t happen. Around that time, a millworkers’ union official, talking about job losses along the coast, suggested that if you wanted to know the reason for the fewer jobs, just take a small plane ride over the area and look down: the trees had already been cut.

In fact, a lot of the big trees had been cut by World War II.  That’s why Weyerhaeuser and other forward-looking companies started tree farms, and why logging started seriously in the national forests right after the war.  The best places for growing and harvesting trees were the lowlands, such as Olympic National Park’s rainforest valleys.  The national forests, often at higher elevations, basically held what was left.  Lower-elevation forests turn out to be better for spotted owls, too. And that habitat is better for barred owls, which have been pushing the spotted owls uphill, where it’s harder for a forest predator to make a living.  To some extent, topography seems to be destiny.)

An unsustainable burst of logging in National Forests during the last years of the 1980s briefly lifted hopes and incomes.  Then came the spotted owl.

 To his credit, Bill Clinton, while acknowledging the plight of Northwestern milltowns at the 1993 Portland conference, also noted that their plight was hardly unique; towns in his native Arkansas and Al Gore’s Tennessee were going through similar travails.

And what happened economically after the National Forest Plan was adopted?  Not much.  Some experts had predicted a noticeable shock to the regional economy.  They were wrong.  As a group of economists observed later, the sky didn’t fall.  Individuals and communities were certainly affected, but the overall regional economy basically didn’t notice.

Nevertheless, the government is still talking about local timber economies and jobs. Both Greens and the forest products industry criticize ways in which the plan has worked in practice, but no one seriously suggested that its basic concept landed far from the mark.  Significantly, the plan is now being “amended,” rather than “revised.”  No one talks about fundamental changes. 

The process is optimistically expected to produce an Environmental Impact Statement this summer and an amendment next year.  In a December Federal Register notice, the Forest Service said it planned to “ address[] changed conditions and new information, to improve resistance and resilience to fire . . . , support adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, . .  address management needs of mature and old growth forests with related ecosystem habitat improvement, and contribute predictable supplies of timber and non-timber products to support economic sustainability in communities affected by forest management.”

The amendment process fits a pattern of Biden administration concern about old growth, forest resiliency, and local jobs.  On Earth Day of 2022, Biden (in Seattle) signed an executive order that requires all of the nation’s 128 National Forests to update their individual plans in order to, among other things, better protect old-growth trees.  In line with Biden’s ongoing effort to channel dollars into places that Trump pretends to care about, the order is entitled “Executive order on strengthening the nation’s forests, communities and local economies.” 

Can Biden actually do much for those economies and communities?  Don’t bet on it.  But the executive order goes beyond that worthy if implausible goal. In fact, its goals closely track those of the Northwest Forest Plan amendment. (The order also called for halting international deforestation, too, and for taking an inventory of old growth on federal land.)

At the end of last year, with the inventory completed, the administration proposed amending the nation’s 128 national forest plans to to better conserve and restore old-growth and mature forests, among other things as significant carbon sinks. The administration would ban old-growth logging starting next year.  That will, of course, depend on who wins the White House this November.

Its talk about “resistance and resilience to fire” may be less problematic.   “Resilience” has become a buzzword as massive fires have consumed trees. Thirty years ago, no one was talking about resilience. But I recall conversations around that long ago with experts who explained to me that the build-up of fuels in eastside forests, the decades of fire suppression there, the selective logging of old, thick-barked, fire-resistant Ponderosa pines made big fires inevitable.  And the forest planners did know there would be wildfire; they just didn’t appreciate the scale of the fires. Now that we’re adding in higher temperatures and drought, the result isn’t exactly a big surprise.

Bottom line: Everyone realizes that we’d better do now the things we should have been doing then. Now it is a key rationale for amending the forest plan.

More attention to the acute effects of climate change means shifting our attention a bit from the west side of the Cascades — where most of the old growth and most of the owls can be found – to the east, where the fire danger is greater, the droughts dryer, the generation of wildfire smoke even more of a nuisance and a threat to human health.

And it’s not just fire: Conservation Northwest science director Dave Werntz explains that climate effects come in a variety of forms.  Atmospheric events of many kinds will be more severe. That means heavier rains, which means even more erosion of the already erosion-prone forest roads with which the federal government has long subsidized the forest products industry.  Which means more soil eroding into – and more landslides tumbling into – streams.  Which means nothing good for fish.            

 In the meantime, after years of experimentation, FWS wants to kill the barred invaders.  Experimental shotgunning of barred owls has shown that targeted assassinations can halt a local spotted owl population’s decline, if not spur its recovery.  

How surprised should we have been when the barred owls muscled in?  Perhaps not very. The people who devised the plan knew barred owls were out there. “We just didn’t want to believe that the barred owl was going to be this much of a problem,” Jerry Franklin told me five years ago.  “All of us who worked on the Northwest Forest Plan wanted to believe that the two owls would partition the landscape.  We were wrong.  We were doing wishful thinking.” 

How soon did that become obvious?  “Almost immediately,” Franklin said.  “We began to see more and more evidence of the [barred owl population’s] expansion.  After the Millennium, it became very clear.”

I asked him about killing barred owls. “I think all of us really know what’s going on,” Franklin said.  “There’s no future for the Northern Spotted Owl without such a program.”

“I love the spotted owl,” he explained.  “It’s such a gentle creature.”  But, he said, this has gotten a lot bigger than saving the spotted owl.  Spotted owls are picky eaters, but barred owls eat everything, and “I’m more concerned about the whole array of prey” species that the barred owl has put at risk.  As for the spotted owl itself, although the Trump Administration refused to label it not just threatened but endangered, “they know it is.”  In fact, “we all know it is. “

Some environmental and animal-rights have protested the plan to kill barred owls, and when I mention the idea casually to people without a stake in the controversy, they tend to be skeptical at best.  They don’t like killing wild birds.  They like seeing barred owls – and rarely see spotted owls, anyway.  Some fear unintended consequences.  Some don’t like the idea of human beings once again playing  God.  Some fear that the hunters will wind up killing the wrong birds, while others talk about the environmental hazards of lead shot.

The government says it won’t allow lead shot, will have the shooters trained to identify the right owls, will instruct them to shoot at close range, so there’s less chance of missing targets or hitting the wrong ones.  Will it work?  Tests over a number of years suggest that a strategic whacking of barred owls allows spotted owl populations to stabilize, if not rebound.  No one envisions wiping out barred owls.  Therefore, this would be a perpetual process, rather like trying to limit the spread of knotweed or English ivy.

Will the assassination of barred owls be too little too late?  Spotted owl researcher David Forsman, now retired from the Forest Service, recently told The New York Times he was skeptical about the plan to shoot barred owls.  But he didn’t dismiss it.  Still, “is there some point,” Forsman asked, “at which we simply admit that we have screwed things up so badly that there is no going back to the good old days?” he said. “I am torn apart by this dilemma, and I find it difficult to get mad at anyone on either side of the argument.”

When the Spotted Owl wars were at their hottest, you saw signs and bumper stickers suggesting that owners of cafes and drivers of pickups would just as soon eat or shoot the pesky birds.   If it’s hootin’, I’m shootin’, said one. 

The joke then was shooting spotted owls to save jobs. The reality may soon be shooting barred owls to save spotted owls.

Decades ago, after the scale of the barred owl threat became obvious, Thomas told me that anyone who really wanted to save spotted owls should take a .22-caliber rifle and go out and shoot barred owls.  But, he cautioned, that would never happen.  Now it looks as if he may have been wrong.  Substitute shotguns for 22s, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is contemplating that very thing.

“If it’s hootin’, I’m shootin’” may be the new reality.  Forever.

Way back when Thomas was newly famous for chairing the committee that recommended setting aside millions of acres for the spotted owl, I remember sitting in his Forest Service office in LaGrande, Oregon while he told me about his nightmare: a plan that restricts logging enough to cause real pain to people in timber communities but doesn’t restrict it enough to save the owls.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I wake up at night and think, ‘Did we leave enough habitat?’  And then I think, ’14,000 jobs will be lost.  Sometimes I think if we’d just left a little more, only a few more jobs would be lost.  And then my dreams take me to a town like Forks, Washington, and I realize this isn’t a game to these people.  The fear, the pain, the anguish and the anger permeate the atmosphere.” 

But he feared too much compromise.  “If you come up with a very low chance of success,” he asked, “is it worth any cost at all?”

Is that where we find ourselves now?

Back in 1994, many of us assumed that if we just left the big trees alone, everything would eventually go back to the way it was. 

The most visionary part of the forest plan, arguably, is to re-grow old growth – or allow it to develop – in places where the trees aren’t yet old.  This is the kind of long-term vision that forests – and species – require, but such thinking doesn’t fit neatly into electoral or funding cycles, not to mention the 24-hour news environment, or the fruit-fly attention spans cultivated by social media.  

But some people are doing it.  When the plan called for such an approach to enhancing old growth, the planners didn’t really know how it should be done.  Since then, people have worked out on the ground how to do “restoration forestry.”  The Nature Conservancy’s restoration project at Ellsworth Creek near Willapa Bay, which involves restoring more natural mixes of species, more natural spacing, and letting commercial loggers thin the old industrial forest that the Conservancy acquired is a pretty inspiring undertaking.  The area includes some very large, very old cedars that could be 500 years, 1,000 years, 1,500 years old. They’re the old forest.  No one now living is going to see a new old forest.  But some people are trying to set the stage for one to develop.

But now, no one really believes that just letting the trees grow will save the spotted owl. It may come back — at least on many of the places in which land use hasn’t changed entirely.  But the old forest may come back without spotted owls.  Extinction, as they say, is forever. No intervention equals no spotted owls. Realistically, even intervention carries no guarantee.  

We know what we’d like – owls and old trees.  How far are we willing to go to make it so, or at least to try?


  1. I’ve been reading Dan Chasan’s reporting on NW environmental issues for more than forty years. This article is one of his absolute best. Many thanks, Dan.

  2. It was a tough time for those who “lived” this issue for the four years leading up to President Clinton’s Forest Summit, regardless of where one stood on the merits of the ESA, habitat protection, forest-dependent communities, or the highest and best use of the National Forests in the PNW. I strongly suggest William Dietrich’s excellent book written in 1992, “The Final Forest” – https://uwapress.uw.edu/book/9780295990620/the-final-forest/. The book provides the reader with nuances that arguably challenge the notion it was a war per se but a legitimate issue based on changes in public policy and real impacts on the environment and a sector of the timber industry that lived in rural areas of the state.

  3. An excellent very current book is “The Making of the northwest Forest Plan”, with authors Franklin, Johnson and Reeves who were primary architects of the original NW Forest Plan.
    The book includes an objective view of what went right and what didn’t work, as well as thoughtful opinions on what should happen next.
    It’s also an instructive case study on how policy gets made. Special note is made of the major impact of the unexpected input from a Missouri congressman.
    The subcommittee that heard the scientists’ proposal to provide policy guidance just completed its hearing. “As the scientists got up to leave and were literally halfway out the door, Volkmer hollered, “And don’t forget the fish. We don’t want some damn fish blowing up our solution after we are done!”
    And so the scientists suddenly realized that aquatic ecosystems had to be part of the equation.


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