Last December, 50 scientists flocked to Fort Collins, Colo., to compare field notes on one of the great environmental enigmas of our time - the behavior of the northern spotted owl.

Never before had there been such a large convention of owl experts. These scientists had been counting spotted owls in 11 separate studies since the mid-1980s, when it first became apparent the owl faced a large risk of extinction if logging continued unabated in old-growth forests. They brought all their data to Fort Collins. Experts in statistics were on hand to analyze the numbers.

After 12 days of meetings, they emerged with bad news for the ancient forests' poster bird. They found that the annual death rate of adult female owls had been steadily going up since 1985. Second, the population of female owls had been going down by about 4.5 percent a year. At this rate, the population will be reduced by half in about 15 years. Finally, and most alarming, they found the rate of decline was accelerating.

The findings suggested we may already be approaching the extinction threshold for the northern spotted owl, says the organizer of the Fort Collins meeting, biologist Russell Lande of the University of Oregon. "They cast serious doubt on whether the population can survive any additional habitat loss."

Moreover, Lande says, the results could have serious implications for the forest ecosystems. The owl has long been considered an indicator of old-growth forest health.

Looming over the Fort Collins convocation was a series of landmark political and scientific developments in owldom.

When the scientists met, the first draft of President Clinton's new plan for Northwest forests, Option 9, had just emerged from the printer. It is now final, and, pending affirmation by the federal courts, will give a significant portion of remaining old growth to loggers - illustrating the fact that the findings at Fort Collins were not universally accepted among owl biologists.

"My own gut feeling is that things aren't that dire," says Joseph Zisa, a member of the government's owl research team.

Thus, with the Clinton plan nominally in effect, the Northwest's old-growth forests are still in turmoil. Option 9 is a complex political compromise that takes into account both science and the existing political climate. While it slows the momentum of the timber industry, it also may do irreparable harm to the forest ecosystem, hundreds of species and, in particular, the northern spotted owl.

Adding to the confusion are confounding reports from northern California that the owl may be doing quite well among second-growth redwood forests. The redwood data are troubling to some owl biologists, but not because they are invalid. It has been well known for a long time that a large number of owls live among young redwood stands. But the redwood owl data are the exception, not the rule, for a species whose range stretches from San Francisco to the Canadian border and beyond. Owls are thought to survive well in young redwood stands because the trees there quickly regenerate.

North of the Oregon-California border, however, where slower growing Douglas-firs dominate the landscape, no evidence shows the owl in good health. Its demise in Oregon and Washington is the result of years of irresponsible cutting. What is disturbing about the redwood owl data is its exaggeration by the timber industry, whose underlying goal is to discredit the owl's legal status as a threatened species.

One who fell for the industry's public relations ploy was Gregg Easterbrook, a leading environmental journalist who writes in a forthcoming book, excerpted March 28 in The New Republic, that owl extinction claims are "pressurized with hot air." After a walk in the redwoods with industry biologists, he was given to believe that there were too many of the damn birds and no reason to deprive loggers of work.

The distortions in Easterbrook's book foster the impression that all is well in the Northwest forest ecosystem. Taken seriously, they may undermine efforts to discard the ecologically damaging - many say illegal - land management practices employed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Clinton's forest plan, which revises those unsound practices, is not so clear cut. It prescribes a new forest policy that goes a long way toward protecting and restoring the damaged ecosystem at the same time it makes room for logging. Moreover, the plan has credibility in that it is backed by many leading scientists and environmentalists as well as the timber industry giant, Weyerhaeuser Co.

While it is naive to reduce the Northwest forest controversy to a simple "jobs vs. owls' formula - the dilemma is far more complex - it can be instructive to view Option 9 through this prism.

Option 9 emerged in the aftermath of the historic Forest Summit a year ago in Portland, Ore., where President Clinton charged the Forest Service and BLM with developing a plan for preserving the spotted owl and managing the entire Northwest forest ecosystem. At the same time, he ordered them to offer some timber for sale.

"Where sound management policies can preserve the health of forest lands, sales should go forward," the president said.

Government scientists proposed 10 alternatives. A Forest Ecosystem Management Team analyzed seven of the plans for their impacts on more than 1,000 animal and plant species. What emerged was a professional opinion poll on the chances for each species to survive under the seven scenarios.

The winning alternative was number 9, modeled largely after a 1990 Interagency Scientific Committee plan for conserving the owl. Jack Ward Thomas, now chief of the Forest Service, headed that panel; Thomas also led the Option 9 team.

Option 9 was not selected for its biological merits. Other alternatives would provide better stewardship of the forest ecosystem. Option 9's attraction is timber for harvest. It allows loggers to remove about 30 percent of the remaining old growth. About 1.4 million acres of old growth could be cut. Most of the old growth to be protected - about 3.2 million acres - lies within a series of Late Successional Reserves. These will not be managed as wilderness, since the plan permits commercial thinning as well as salvage logging following wildfires.

The reserves are spaced several miles apart. The old growth within them is already highly fragmented by past logging.

Land between the reserves is called "matrix" land, and there loggers will be permitted to nibble away at the old growth as well as grow single species for future harvest. Restricted logging will also be permitted in research areas and riparian areas.

At one time, the ancient forests covered about three-fourths of the land west of the Cascades. A century and a half of logging has reduced these forests to about 5 percent of their former extent.

Until recently, the timber industry was hell-bent on transforming the entire forest into intensively managed "tree farms," save for a few-hundred-thousand acres of old growth locked up in wilderness. The industry has been clearing the entire landscape - removing all wood of value - and burning the rest. After replanting the former forest with single-species crops of Douglas-fir or cedar, it's been destroying competing vegetation by herbicide.

In ecological terms, the few old-growth patches that remain are similar to islands. The effect is called "fragmentation," and it occurs across the Northwest forest landscape. Fragmentation poses a serious risk to the owl and many other species by limiting areas for forage, nesting and dispersal. Some patches of old growth are too small to be useful to a number of species that depend on the deep woods for cover.

Option 9 recognizes that destruction of old-growth habitat will continue. Nevertheless, it implicitly assumes that gradual maturation of regrown forest within the reserves will eventually provide habitat that will lead to recovery of the owl. Some scientists say this scheme is particularly risky to wildlife. The timber industry responds by calling their fears groundless.

For all its faults, the algebra in Gregg Easterbrook's jobs vs. owls formula is provocative: "Clinton's plan to shut down most Washington and Oregon logging may not only be unnecessary, it may be resting on an illusion." That illusion, he says, is an owl extinction alarm predicated on two notions: that the owl lives only in ancient forests, and that a last, fragile, dwindling population of only about 4,000 pairs exists in Oregon and Washington. "New research suggests neither notion is true," he says.

As proof, Easterbrook claims there may in fact be 10,000 owl pairs, including a few thousand of a nearly identical subspecies, the California spotted owl. "Not only is this far more birds than environmentalists have described as necessary to assure spotted owl survival; it is significantly greater than the nadirs of similar raptors that avoided extinction." The American bald eagle and peregrine falcon came to his mind. Moreover, he suggests the owl population may never have exceeded 10,000 pairs of spotted owls.

Of course, the issue is not just the owl but the ecosystem. Easterbrook finds no problem there, either. He can't find a single case of extinction in Northwest forests over the last 50 years, a period of heavy clearcutting.

He ignores the more than 100 salmon stocks that have become extinct in our lifetime. Of other salmon runs so low as to be almost extinct, Easterbrook says only that the causes are probably "natural." Environmentalists point to logging and dams among manmade threats to salmon.

He concludes: "Combined with the prospect that there are many more spotted owl pairs than previously estimated, this raises the question of whether the owl doomsday, which has cost thousands of honest people their livelihoods and occupied the attention of presidents, is at heart a false alarm."

Conversely, Easterbrook also argues that ancient forests should be protected, timber jobs restored and the constructive political power of environmentalism retained. "Honesty about owls would be a beginning," he says.

Joseph Zisa, who is a leading owl biologist at the U.S. Forest Service wildlife research station in Olympia, agrees with that statement. But he says Easterbrook's basic premise - that owls exist in far greater numbers and in a wider diversity of habitats than previously believed - is "blatantly, painfully, astonishingly incorrect."

Zisa says the higher number of owls being counted does not mean the population is increasing. Rather, it indicates that surveys are expanding in scope and intensity. It's like looking for balls on a golf course. The more you look, the more you find.

Moreover, the number of owls never was the issue, says biologist Charles Meslow, researcher at Oregon State. "The question is what happens to its habitat. We were never short of owls. But we are growing short of habitat."

In fact, some biologists and population ecologists contend that the trends are severe enough to assume that the owl population may soon reach a bottleneck, or a point beyond which it cannot recover.

The bottleneck theory illustrates the scientific dispute at the heart of Option 9. It was first advanced in 1988 by Russell Lande, then a researcher at the University of Chicago. Lande says all scientists agree that the owl needs a minimum amount of suitable habitat to remain viable. Implicit in Option 9 is the view that we are some distance above this threshold. Lande says the Fort Collins data indicate otherwise.

"Option 9 will not prevent extinction of the northern spotted owl," he says. "Further habitat destruction and fragmentation are likely to exacerbate the situation."

The Fort Collins findings focused on the female owl's declining survival. This makes sense, since changes in adult female survival have a much greater effect on population than any other factor. Nevertheless, the dispersal of juvenile owls is also a concern, he says, because it is occurring at rates "far short of that needed to stabilize local populations."

In defending Option 9's position for logging some old growth, Zisa says the Fort Collins biologists were swayed by biases and assumptions that tilted the data. "We still have some flexibility and room to maneuver," he says. "The question of what levels of risk are acceptable is something the politicians and the public have got to decide. But have we reached the point of possible extinction? My gut feeling is no."

Aside from owls, Option 9 suggests some 400 species face increased risks from logging old growth. Many of these are uncharismatic microfauna such as slugs, snails and mollusks.

On the other hand, Option 9 sets new, stronger standards for protecting salmon and trout - species that are in danger in large part because their spawning habitat, hundreds of miles from the ocean, has been disturbed by clearcuts, roads and landslides on logged-off hillsides. Improving salmon habitat is not only good for the environment, but is necessary for the creation of fishing jobs. Banning salmon fishing seasons in the Pacific Ocean affected hundreds of people this year.

But some scientists question whether Option 9 provides adequate protection even for aquatic resources. In 164 key watersheds, an analysis of conditions is required before logging can begin. There can be no net increase in miles of road, however, and no roads can be built in roadless areas, although helicopter logging is permitted. Outside these watersheds, the strategy is unclear.

The Wilderness Society estimates that 1.7 million acres of salmon habitat are outside the old-growth and riparian reserves as well as the key watersheds. Additionally, the group estimates that 82 of 257 at-risk fish stocks on federal lands do not inhabit the protected watersheds.

An additional problem for salmon, as well as other species, is the cumulative effect of land-use practices on federal and non-federal land. For example, most coastal streams begin their journey to the ocean high in the forested Coast Range. Eventually they pass through private forest land, and then through agricultural land. Government scientists say Option 9 gives salmon species an 80 percent likelihood of achieving well-distributed populations, but does not suggest how that outcome might change if cumulative effects of all land uses - public and private - are taken into account. Other species, including the owl, might also suffer.

Since no scientific reason exists to log old growth, a key question to be asked is whether the Option 9 plan will save endangered timber jobs.

Option 9 exposes the Northwest forest ecosystem to some amount of risk for the sake of what turns out to be a small number of "saved" timber jobs. Option 9 preserves only about 6,000 jobs when compared to a "zero cut" option where little or no old growth would be harvested. But even the 6,000-job figure may be high.

The administration used a traditional approach to evaluating job loss, but did not consider the meaningful contribution of unlogged forest to the stability of local and regional economies. At the same time, Option 9 timber sales must be subsidized by the taxpayer, given the high cost of building roads through the forest for Option 9's relatively small yield.

A study by economist Randal O'Toole shows taxpayers will pay $205 for every 1,000 board-feet sold off Northwest national forests in 1995. But would a ban on federal harvests destroy the industry? The industry this year will employ 110,000 workers and cut 11 billion board feet from private lands alone. Option 9 would add only 1 billion board-feet to the total.

Many observers say the administration could have generated as many as 20,000 jobs without putting the owl at risk by simply banning raw log exports. Critics of the ban say it violates the spirit of fee trade. But countries routinely hoard valuable commodities in short supply. Oregon mills are already tapping log supplies in Montana, creating a log shortage in that state. That's one reason why Montana Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Pat Williams, both Democrats, are backing a log export ban sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

But such legislation thwarts the ubiquitous Weyerhaeuser, a reality that goes to the heart of the politics of Option 9. Last December, the administration announced it was crafting a rule under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act that would spare the company's timberland from the duty of protecting the spotted owl. Indeed, in southwestern Oregon, where Weyerhaeuser owns 1.25 million acres, a spotted owl protection area is gerrymandered so as to exclude the Weyerhaeuser property.

Neighboring private property owners weren't so lucky, leading Rep. DeFazio, to suggest the arrangement amounts to collusion: "Once again, the government and big business have combined to shaft the little guy."

Officials at Weyerhaeuser and the U.S. Interior Department insist no deals were cut. Dale Hall, associate regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland, says no attention was paid to who owned land where the lines were drawn.

It seems clear that the era of the owl is closing. Even though some scientists insist that the bird needs more protection, that Option 9 carries too many uncertainties, the tide has already turned. Over the next several years, this new view of the owl as a robust survivor will guide federal forest policy in the Northwest.

Proponents of Option 9 defend their plan as a rational departure from years of environmental hyperbole and biased science. But among the veterans of spotted owl research, one detects more than a trace of skepticism. Asked whether he endorsed Option 9, Charles Meslow, a biologist at Oregon State University and one of the most respected owl researchers in the region, could only offer these lukewarm comments: "I have to be in support of it. And I want to be. I have to have faith."

Paul Koberstein has covered environmental stories in Oregon since 1986. These stories were paid for by the High Country News Research Fund.

Copyright © 1994 HCN and Paul Koberstein