Spotted owls, logging & environmentalists

Spotted owls thrive in 40 year-old second-growth redwood forests near Eureka, California. 

Species diversity cannot be discussed today without mention of the spotted owl. This little night hunter has become the symbol of forest preservation in the US Pacific Northwest.

It has provided the legal basis for a major reduction in logging in the National Forests, large tracts of public land controlled from Washington, DC. The spotted owl is listed as a "threatened" species under US legislation, one step away from "endangered."

As a result the species qualifies for protection under the Endangered Species Act. This has led to a virtual shutting down of logging in many National Forests, despite the fact that they were originally established as areas where forestry would be one of the main activities. In the early 1990's, about 30,000 forest workers lost their jobs due to the concern that the spotted owl would become extinct if logging continued.

This is a classic case of a species that has been deemed to be absolutely dependent on old growth forest. The theory is that each pair of owls requires about 3,500 acres (1,500 hectares) of old growth forest to survive and that logging any old growth will result in a reduction in the population. As this contravenes the Endangered Species Act it has been successfully argued in court that logging should be curtailed.

The restrictions on logging and the debate about the owl have resulted in a tremendous increase in research on the species. Contrary to environmentalists' claims, it has been found that spotted owls are quite capable of surviving in second-growth forests as well as old growth1. This finding was initially greeted with disbelief. When it was irrefutably demonstrated that owls were not only living, but also breeding, in second growth, they were deemed to be "surplus owls" on the assumption that they were not viable in the long term. It now appears that these owls are as viable as those that live in old growth and that in some cases logging may actually be beneficial to the owl.

In coastal forests from southern Oregon to northern California the main prey species for spotted owls is the dusky-footed woodrat.

The rat reaches its highest population density in 10 to 15 year-old forest after which its numbers decline as the forest ages. So long as there are surrounding forests over 40 years old, the owl does best when there is a mixture of forest ages.

On Simpson Timber's 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) of private forest near Eureka, California there are more than 370 territorial spotted owls with a stable breeding population even though there is virtually no old growth forest remaining in the area. There have been over 1000 pairs of owls counted on private forest land alone in northern California, and not all the land has been surveyed2.

In more northern forest in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, the spotted owl's main prey is flying squirrels. Here the owls are more dependent on old growth as the flying squirrel does best in mature forests. But even in these regions researchers have found that owl numbers are far higher than originally predicted.

In 1990 a team of scientists published the Thomas Report3, which estimated there were 136 pairs of spotted owls on 750,000 acres (300,000 hectares) of public forest land on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. This included Olympic National Park, Olympic National Forest, and state lands managed by the Department of Natural Resources.

The scientists also predicted that the maximum number of owls that could be supported in the area under ideal conditions in the future was 143 pairs or one pair for every 5,200 acres (2,100 hectares). In 1994, scientists working for the same federal agencies reported documented existence of 234 pairs in the same area and estimated there are between 282 and 321 pairs in the region4.

In other words, it is now acknowledged that there are more than twice as many owls as was considered the theoretical maximum only four years earlier. Now it is believed that a pair of owls requires only 2,300 acres (935 hectares) rather than the previous estimate of 5,200 acres (of 2,100 hectares). In all likelihood, even these more recent estimates are conservative. It seems the more we look for them, the more owls we discover.

Despite these findings, which prove there are far more owls than were thought to exist when logging was curtailed, environmentalists continue to demand that logging be outlawed. The "Zero Cut" campaign led by the Sierra Club, and supported by many other groups, takes the position that there should be no commercial forestry on any public land in the US.5 Much of the reasoning behind this policy is based on the false assertion that species are threatened with extinction from logging.

The news media aren't helping much with the public's understanding of the relationship between spotted owls and forestry. In an article about redwood forests in March 1999, the New York Times reported that the spotted owl was a "nearly extinct species."6 No evidence was provided for this statement; it was made as if it was an obvious fact. No wonder people believe that forestry must be stopped to protect species from extinction!

The issue of species protection offers an interesting contrast between approaches taken in the US Pacific Northwest compared to British Columbia. The 49th parallel that divides the two regions is entirely artificial geographically but it is the starting point in defining radically different political and legal systems on either side of the border. Whereas the ecosystems are virtually identical, especially near the boundary, the similarity ends at the level of forest ecology.

The ownership of forest lands in the US Pacific Northwest is a complex checkerboard of federal, state, and private interests. Lands in the National Parks, the National Forests and Bureau of Land Management are under federal jurisdiction. There are also large tracts of state-owned forests that are managed for timber and other resources. Much of the most productive, low-elevation forest land is owned privately by individuals and companies. Each of these jurisdictions comes under a different set of regulations.

In British Columbia, by contrast, over 95 percent of the forest land is owned and controlled directly by the provincial government. The provincial Forest Practices Code (1995) brings the small percentage of managed, privately held forest land under similar regulations as public land.

There is little federal ownership in forest land other than national parks so the federal government of Canada has minimal involvement in the management of forest for timber. The main role of the federal government is the protection of salmon streams, a role that has had considerable influence on forest practice near rivers.

The result is that commercially managed forest land in British Columbia is essentially under one set of regulations whereas there are three distinct types of jurisdiction in the US Pacific Northwest.

The most interesting comparison is between the National Forest lands in the US Pacific Northwest and the provincial forest lands in British Columbia. They are similar in these respects: both are publicly-owned, dedicated to timber harvesting (among many other uses), contain considerable old growth and other stages of original forest, support the economies of many communities, and are subject to the growing demands and values of an increasingly urban population. In recent years these similarities have been overshadowed by entirely different approaches to resolving the conflict between preservationists and pro-forestry interests.

On the US side, a combination of the Endangered Species Act, the protection of the spotted owl as a threatened species, and the individual citizen's right to sue the government have resulted in the cessation of most timber harvesting in National Forests.

The result has been economic disaster for local forestry communities and few effective government programs to assist in developing other forms of economic activity. In this case, the legal rights of a listed owl species have been rated higher than those of humans, making the spotted owl a symbol of both preservation and devastation. It has been a classic example of land use conflict based on confrontation and litigation where the losers get little or no compensation.

In British Columbia, land use conflicts that focus on preservation of old growth forests have been equally intense. But there has been no simple legal route to force one side's agenda on the other. As a result, the conflict — after some dramatic logging site demonstrations — has settled down to being resolved largely through negotiation rather than legal action. All sides in the debate (environmental, forestry, tourism, labour, fish, wildlife, and communities) have engaged in round table forums and have had a surprising amount of success in reaching agreements that accommodate all interests and create win-win solutions.


1. Personal communication, Lowell Diller, biologist with Simpson Redwood Inc. Arcata, California, May 1995.

2. Personal communication, Lowell Diller, biologist with Simpson Redwood Inc. Arcata, California, November 1999.

3. Jack Ward Thomas et al, A Conservation Strategy for the Northern Spotted Owl. Interagency Scientific Committee to Address the Conservation of the Northern Spotted Owl, Portland Oregon, May 1990.

4. Richard S Holthausen, et al, The Contribution of Federal and Nonfederal Habitat to Persistence of the Northern Spotted Owl on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington, Report of the Reanalysis Team, U.S. D.A Forest Service and National Biological Survey, October, 1994.

5. See: http://www.emagazine.com/july-august_1996/0796ibsierr.html

6. New York Times, December 8, 1998.

Excerpted from Patrick Moore's "Green Spirit: Trees are the Answer." For more information on his books or to order a copy, click here.