By Zach Hagadone
Special to the Reader
This article is part of a series supported by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and sponsored by Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. Previous installments were published in the Feb. 3, Feb. 10 and June 2 edition of the Reader. For more information on this series, which will conclude in the fall, visit scotchmanpeaks.org.
Anyone who lived in the Northwest in the 1980s and ’90s heard an opinion about the spotted owl. Despite being a rare species — and not present in Idaho at all — the diminutive bird loomed large in the political imagination of Northwesterners as the symbol of the “Timber Wars.”
The habitat of the spotted owl — Strix occidentalis to specialists — consists almost entirely within the temperate rainforest climates from the southwest of British Columbia down the coastal regions of Washington, Oregon and California, and including a swathe of the desert Southwest U.S. and into northern Mexico, being especially habituated to coniferous forests and canyons full of dense woods.
As The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds puts it, the spotted owl “is rather rare in much of the West. It lives in dense stands of mature forests. The cutting of roads through forests has been followed by the disappearance of the spotted owl in the area.”
Typically, spotted owls grow to between 16 ½ and 19 inches, and are characterized by their dark brown coloration with white spots and large, dark eyes. They lay between two and three white eggs in the natural cavities of trees or canyon walls, and sometimes repurpose abandoned hawks nests. They are delicate creatures, with great sensitivity to changes in the very specific environments in which they live.
“That status of the spotted owl is under study to see what additional protection it needs beyond that which covers all owls,” according to the 18th edition of Audubon, published in 1992 — right in the thick of the conflict around which the species revolved.
Slugs, bugs, owls and fish
In 1992, it was common in Northwest lumber towns — even far from the range of spotted owls, such as in North Idaho — to see bumper stickers, signs and T-shirts bearing the iconic Campbell’s soup label, though altered to read: “Logger’s Cream of Spotted Owl Soup.” There were similar sarcastic food items such as “Spotted Owl Helper,” riffing on Hamburger Helper, and restaurants in the region even offered menu items satirically referring to the spotted owl as a foodstuff.
Few animals have ever drawn such widespread — and vitriolic — condemnation, all because their habitat happened to be the same acres of ground on which the country had been increasingly “getting out the cut” to feed its need for lumber to build the suburbs and provide the timber products demanded by the people who lived in them in the decades following the end of World War II.
With private timber stands cut over yet the demand for wood ever increasing, the public forests set aside during the Theodore Roosevelt administration in the first decade of the 20th century had been nibbled at for the greater part of three decades by the time then-President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973.
By the 1980s and early ’90s, that nibbling had progressed into some of the most ecologically fragile acreage in the West. That wouldn’t have raised much political opposition in previous decades, but by the waning decades of the 20th century, the public had more tools with which to oppose timber sales on public lands.
Empowered by the wave of federal environmental legislation enacted in the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon eras — as well as the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 — it was now possible for conservation activists to take their concerns into the courtroom, and the spotted owl became a powerful lever with which to slow or even halt timber sales in the Pacific Northwest, particularly.
Each owl needs a wide range of territory in which to hunt, mate and rear their offspring. So one strategy to oppose timber cutting in their old-growth habitat was to establish buffer zones around their nests — often so large as to make tree harvesting impractical.
The result was a raft of lawsuits and judicial decisions that ground timber sales and harvesting to a near standstill by the late-1980s and early-’90s. In the meantime, direct action against timber operations was making conditions tense in the woods of Washington, Oregon and California.
People climbed into trees marked for cutting and refused to move. Some drove spikes into trees as an act of sabotage — hit by a chainsaw, the metal would shear away into potentially deadly shards at worst but, in the meantime, disable the equipment. There was also vandalism of bulldozers and logging trucks.
The most dramatic conflict occurred in Oregon, where protesters against one timber-cutting operation built an encampment that the NPR series Timber Wars in 2021 described as “a 17th-century fort,” which looked more like a latter-day motte-and-bailey stronghold. Some protesters chained themselves to concrete blocks sunk into the soil of logging roads in order to block access. There were physical confrontations, arrests and a mood of impending violence.
Collaboration had never been further from the agenda in the woods.
Conditions had become so dire — both with the suspension of lumbering operations and the potential for loss of life — that then-President Bill Clinton in his first term intervened.
“President Clinton called a timber summit in 1994. He hadn’t been president for very long and he said, ‘Well, we’re going to break the logjam,’” said Jay O’Laughlin, a nationally-recognized scholar of forestry and professor emeritus of forestry and policy sciences at the University of Idaho.
Clinton brought Vice President Al Gore, as well as the secretaries of the interior, agriculture and commerce, to Portland, Ore., and, “What they decided was that they would do a special plan for all the spotted owl forests … and we will have one plan for all of these forests and it will save the spotted owl.”
The Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 represented a seachange.
“This is where the ‘survey and manage’ thing came about — it was part of the Northwest Forest Plan, and they were to protect every plant and animal in these forests — not just those that are threatened and endangered; all the slugs and bugs as well,” O’Laughlin said.
Spotted owls may have featured as the central species in the fight in the forests on the West Coast, but close watchers of the Timber Wars agree that it was “a surrogate for saving the big trees,” O’Laughlin added.
Indeed, even at the time, some conservation activists worried that putting so much emphasis on the spotted owl as the avatar for all forest protection could end up backfiring and ultimately endanger the environmental protections it had been framed to serve.
“They said, ‘How can we save these big trees, save them from the chainsaw, the timber harvesting that’s spreading across the forests that we love. What if we could find a species that was threatened and endangered and fell under the Endangered Species Act and its habitat would have to be managed specifically for that species?’ And, lo and behold, they found the spotted owl.”
Other species had factored in similar ways in similar conflicts. In Tennessee, it had been the tiny snail darter fish at the center of a conflict over a dam to build a reservoir.
“That was an interesting case that parallels the spotted owl, but it’s really not about timber; it’s about managing the resources for what different people want from them,” O’Laughlin said, and, in Idaho, with its non-existent spotted owl population, the contest over resource management had more to do with the “spotted fish,” that is, salmon.
From the forests to the mountain streams
Amid the escalating conflict in Northwest forests, the Clinton plan in ’94 added yet another level of complexity to the philosophy of “management” of forestlands. Between the Endangered Species Act, the various wilderness plans and the Northwest Forest Plan, the “everything for everybody” concept of the previous decades was cracking apart.
“What people feared was, ‘They’re going to reduce the timber harvest on the federal forests in spotted owl country, but all that’s going to do is push the demand east, across the Cascade Crest into the other federal forests, so we can’t allow that to happen,’” O’Laughlin said.
The result of that fear was an offshoot of the Northwest Forest Plan, which was crafted to address the non-coastal Columbia River Basin — the so-called Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project, or ICBEMP, planned to manage the enormous region east of the Cascade Mountains to Montana and south to Boise.
“This plan came up with, ‘Oh gosh, we don’t have spotted owls but we have spotted fish so they need wider buffer zones than the Forest Practices Act,’” O’Laughlin said, referring to another piece of legislation from the 1970s that sought to establish best practices for commercial activities on state, county and private lands. In Idaho, the FPA passed the Legislature in 1974, with the mission to “assure the continuous growing and harvesting of forest tree species and to protect and maintain the forest soil, air, water resources, wildlife and aquatic habitat.”
As with the spotted owl in the forests of the West Coast rainforests, in the Intermountain West it would now be the fish who needed buffer zones — increased from 150 feet to 300 feet, or the span of two “height potential” trees on a given acre of ground.
“So that effectively took right around 10% of the federal forests in Idaho off the table as a result of that just for the riparian buffers,” said O’Laughlin, who was deeply involved in the studies that led to implementing those policies. “It’s a similar effect to the spotted owl, but it was done for a spotted fish.”
One of the first studies O’Laughlin performed at the Policy and Analysis Group at the University of Idaho was focused on how to protect water quality in forests; and, among the key findings, was to leave stream-side buffer zones.
“The question was, and we were asked to answer this question, ‘How wide should these buffer strips be?,’” he said.
After reviewing the prevailing literature and publishing a review, O’Laughlin’s group found that “everything is site specific.” In some cases, a five-foot buffer of grass was found to be sufficient on grazing land. On steep mountain sides, about 150 feet was usually sufficient.
However, “citizen conservation groups” — a term that O’Laughlin prefers to “environmentalists” — argued that wasn’t adequate; and, noting that there were threatened and endangered fish throughout the West, made the case that the buffer strips should be wider than what the Forest Practices Act said they should be.
“As a result, we have — and this was a direct offshoot of the spotted owl battle during the Timber Wars — we had the riparian buffer zone battle, which extended the fight outside the spotted owl forests and into the rivers and streams in the mountains,” he said.
By the mid-1990s, policy had become so labyrinthine, and the passions so high, that the disposition of these lands was being debated in the courtroom instead of the boardrooms of industry, as well as on the ground, with activists putting their bodies between the managers and the acres they were supposed to be managing.
“It’s at that point — that’s when the strength of the grassroots activism and these laws finally come to bear, and it’s at that point when you see timber harvest levels really radically drop,” said Adam Sowards, a professor of environmental history who also serves as director of the Pacific Northwest Studies Program at the University of Idaho.
According to Sowards, “massive timber sales and poor management of endangered species is what actually set the stage” for the turning point of the trouble in the forests during the 1980s and ’90s, with opponents in the citizen conservation groups now using the law to make their case.
“I think bad stuff happened on the land and I think people called the Forest Service and timber companies out on it,” he said.
‘These forests belong to all of us’
While the Timber Wars grabbed a lot of headlines for the conflicts in the forests of the West Coast — and especially Oregon — Idaho experienced the era of unrest in different ways.
For one thing, Sowards traced the debate back to the very essence of the “forest reserve” policy of the early 20th century, as Idaho politicians — often on behalf of the country as a whole — made it their job to parse through just what it meant to manage public lands.
A case in point was the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation process kicked off by the Wilderness Act of 1964. In essence, RARE required the Forest Service and other land management agencies to survey roadless areas within a period of 10 years in order to formulate recommendations for formal wilderness designation.
That should have happened, but as Sowards said, “The Forest Service did a crappy job.”
Conservation groups used the court system to force a reformation of the process, demanding more rigorous study and resulting in RARE II, around which Idaho U.S. Sen. Jim MClure, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, launched a series of hearings throughout the state in 1983, including in Boise, Idaho Falls and Pocatello in the south and Lewiston and Coeur d’Alene in the north.
He was looking for input on recommendations for wilderness areas in Idaho, with two terms at the center of the debate: “hard release” and “soft release.”
A strong supporter of industry, Republican McClure became a lobbyist and consultant for mining interests after declining to run for reelection in 1990, after which he was replaced by Sens. Larry Craig and Jim Risch. He favored “hard release,” meaning that some places would be declared wilderness and therefore protected, but, “There will be nothing else after this,” Sowards said. “Never again will that be something in Idaho that people will have to consider.”
On the other side were advocates of “soft release,” which meant some areas could be set aside as wilderness, with the option to add others in the future.
However, McClure’s fact-finding tour came at a time of particular insecurity for the timber industry — with a “hard release” policy he and lumber executives were seeking long-term stability. It’s hard to plan future timber harvests on public lands if those lands might one day wind up being carved out for wilderness protection.
“He loses in that case,” Sowards said, adding that one of the results is in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness designation in 1984.
“Everyone wants to have some certainty looking ahead,” he said. “Activists don’t necessarily agree, but the politicians that are friendly to the timber industry want some of the certainty around it.”
Lacking that certainty, and with “soft release” the policy going forward, timber companies and the communities that relied on lumbering felt threatened.
That added additional fuel to the conflicts that developed throughout the later 1980s and 1990s, up to the Northwest Forest Act, and helps explain some of the intensity of feeling on behalf of timber towns.
“Here’s the thing about people in the timber industry: They live near these areas that they harvest. They don’t have any place to cut-and-run anymore — that’s all over with. That was over with way before World War II,” O’Laughlin said.
“A century ago that was the criticism of the timber industry … [But] the people that work in the woods, they don’t want to despoil the same place that they work, which is the same place that they recreate,” he added. “They don’t want to destroy the wildlife habitat, they want to go out there and hunt birds, and hunt elk and hunt deer. They want to go out there and fish in clean water, not dirty water.”
According to O’Laughlin, that simultaneously complicates and simplifies the story of the Timber Wars and how it moved from conflict to collaboration: These were and remain lands on which everyone relied, whether for their livelihood, recreation or (in a basic ecological sense) their survival. He didn’t see ideology at play as much as pragmatism.
“They want things from the forest. And the harvesting of timber removes some of the things that the timber adversaries want. … They think that, ‘We like the big trees, we like the wildlife habitat, and if you’re going to go out there and make stumps, we’re going to fight you.’ And that’s exactly what happened. They don’t like stumps on their land, and they view it as their land,” he said.
However, O’Laughlin added, the fact remains that, “These forests belong to all of us. The ownership is actually Congress and then Congress delegates the management authority to whoever they see fit.”
The collaborative spirit may have seemed distant in the 1990s — and it was, with unrest in the forests throughout the West — but the notion of collective ownership and how it should be structured got new life toward the end of the 20th century. But it wasn’t easy, and remains uneasy to this day.
This article is the conclusion of the second part of a series supported by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and sponsored by Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. Previous installments were published in February and the June 2 edition of the Reader. For more information on this series, which will conclude in the fall, visit scotchmanpeaks.org.
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