Actually, it's more like a new chapter in an old story, about how the emerald belt between the salt shore and the Cascades provided much of the raw material for West Coast settlement and fueled the region's economy for decades to come. Bureau of Land Management lands checkerboard the center of that belt. Here, through a fluke of history, communities founded on timber remained tied to the industry as if by an umbilical cord.
It all started when a railroad land deal went wrong. In 1866, the federal government granted railroads 3.7 million acres in exchange for building a line between Portland and California intended to open the forests to wide-scale logging. After the Oregon & California Railroad Co. violated the terms of the grant, the feds reclaimed 2.6 million acres known as the O&C lands.
In the heart of this country, a settlement called Stumptown sprang up alongside the railroad tracks just inside future Douglas County, about 100 miles south of Eugene. The town lived and breathed timber, like so many others in the area, from Roseburg to Grants Pass to Medford. By 1929, it had been renamed Glendale and had 11 thriving sawmills.
In 1937, Congress designated the O&C lands for "permanent forest production," under what would become the Bureau of Land Management, to support the 18 counties that contained them. Since the U.S. government doesn't pay property tax, Congress promised the O&C counties a whopping 75 percent of federal timber revenues to pay for a variety of services -- triple what other counties would get from Forest Service lands, which were then managed as reserves rather than for timber.
By World War II, most of the old-growth trees on private land had been felled, and so growing demand turned to federal forests. Government-subsidized industrial logging fed the hungry post-war economy, providing lumber for 1950s suburbia. So much cash flowed in from the O&C lands that counties started giving 25 percent back to the BLM to help with management costs. But the big payouts also made some of these counties almost pathologically dependent on federal timber and reluctant to diversify their economies.
As clear-cut logging liquidated old-growth forests over the next decades, concern about forest management grew with the burgeoning environmental movement. In the 1970s, the new National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and National Forest Management Act set the stage to drastically alter the practices and goals of federal forestry.
Around that time, a young Jerry Franklin was a research forester for the Forest Service in Corvallis. When he started studying old-growth forests, he thought he was compiling the historical record of a soon-to-be-extinct ecosystem: The management paradigm of the day was to log it all.
As environmentalists realized how many species depended on old-growth forests, however, they started working to protect that habitat. Activists camped out in the treetops and blockaded logging roads while their urban counterparts went to court to defend ancient forests. In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after losing in court, listed the northern spotted owl as threatened. Environmentalists finally had the weapon they needed to stop old-growth logging.
When agencies tried to continue cutting without using new standards to protect the owl, environmentalists won a sweeping legal victory: Federal courts halted all new timber sales in owl habitat until an adequate plan could be put in place. Between 1990 and 1994, timber available for harvest in the Northwest plummeted from 5 billion-board feet to about 1 billion board-feet. The region's timber economy would never be the same.
The cutback in federal harvest hit all of timber country hard but was catastrophic to the O&C counties, particularly those rich in federal land. Unemployment in Douglas County soared from 7 percent in 1990 to 12 percent in 1992. In the same period, over a hundred mills shut down across the Northwest, nearly half of them in Oregon.
In April 1993, Clinton went to Portland to make good on his campaign promise to settle the timber wars. A team of more than 100 experts -- including Franklin and Johnson -- was given 90 days to come up with a solution. Their report became the Northwest Forest Plan, a blueprint for regional ecosystem management unlike anything the world had seen.
Key to the compromise was helping timber towns find new livelihoods. Jobs in the Woods programs put some loggers back to work restoring watersheds. Federal grants helped communities weather the economic storm. The limited harvest under the plan revived some jobs, and unemployment levels returned to around 8 percent in hard-hit counties. To help counties pay for basic services once covered by timber dollars, the feds doled out "spotted owl payments" that would last for six years.
Unfortunately, neither the timber industry nor environmentalists were satisfied. Eight lawsuits -- four from each side -- challenged the Northwest Forest Plan, but none succeeded. The old-growth logging allowed under the plan ensured that battles would continue. "That was a case where our judgment was wrong and society said, 'No,' " Franklin says. After years of ongoing litigation and protest, agencies have generally reverted to thinning over-crowded plantations as a middle ground between loggers and environmentalists.
Meanwhile, industry continued to fight for more logging, claiming the Northwest Forest Plan violated the 1937 O&C Act, which mandated much higher levels of harvest. The Bush BLM settled the case under the Western Oregon Plan Revision -- aka "The Whopper" -- which tried to restore historical logging levels, only to be defeated in court and dismissed under Obama.
Yet saving the forest hasn't saved the owl, thanks in part to the unexpected invasion of an Eastern relative -- the bigger and more aggressive barred owl, which entered the Northwest from the Midwest through Canada. Barred owls compete with their spotted kin for food and territory, sometimes even killing or mating with them to produce hybrid "sparred owls." Spotted owls, whose numbers have fallen an estimated 40 percent in the last 25 years, are now outnumbered 5 to 1 by their cousins in the Oregon Coast Range. This year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to begin shooting barred owls to determine if that will help spotted owls.
Given the bird's steady decline, Fish and Wildlife last year created a new plan nearly doubling its critical habitat and requiring additional review before logging. But habitat on federal land is still being lost -- these days, more to wildfire than the saw. Southern Oregon's 2002 Biscuit Fire ripped through 500,000 acres, causing the greatest loss of owl habitat since the Northwest Forest Plan was put in place. All told, wildfire was responsible for 80 percent of owl habitat lost in the 15 years following the plan.
Two decades ago, it seemed as if the bird's fate was inversely tied to that of the timber towns: If the owls thrived, the communities died, and vice versa. Many a western Oregon greasy spoon once jokingly featured "spotted owl stew" on its menu. Today, those towns still seem headed toward oblivion. Yet so does the owl -- and owl stew, figuratively speaking, is still on the menu.
Marv Eells is one of Glendale's few remaining storeowners, working the counter at his hardware-video-liquor store next door to his deli and used furniture store. Like many O&C residents, he blames the economic malaise on environmental regulations. "Since they went totally medieval on the spotted owl thing," he says, "it's taken a lot of taters off of a lot of tables in this part of the country."
If only it were that simple.