CLATSOP COUNTY, Ore. - Crunching across downed limbs and a dusting of snow, Bill Lecture stops in the middle of a stand of Douglas fir and western hemlock. Planted 27 years ago, the trees stretch high toward the sun, their craggy, crowded branches blocking out most of the sky.
"This is not good spotted owl habitat," says Lecture, the assistant district forester for the Clatsop State Forest, an expanse of relatively young forest west of Portland, Ore.
The elusive northern spotted owl, symbol of last decade's federal timber wars in the Pacific Northwest, won't set up a home in this newer cluster of trees. The forest is so dense, says Lecture, that owls have a difficult time flying and foraging for food.
This may explain why owl numbers have declined drastically over the past decade. A new study by the forestry department found that between 1994 and 1999, about 60 percent of the of the threatened raptors had vanished from some Oregon forests.
But Lecture says his agency may have a solution. A new forest management plan, approved in January (HCN, 1/15/01: Land trade threatens trails and trees), would selectively log smaller trees on the Clatsop and Tillamook state forests. The goal is to open up the forests and allow the larger trees preferred by the owls to flourish. The forestry department says its plan will balance ecological responsibility with an obligation to generate money for local counties by logging.
But many Northwestern conservationists think the plan is too risky, and that an untested strategy shouldn't be tried on a state forest, where threatened species like the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet are already struggling.
"It just flies in the face of everything I know about critters," says Joe Keating, the federal forestry coordinator for the Oregon Sierra Club. "All in all, it's just a very bad plan."
Because the policy will affect endangered species habitat, the federal government must approve it. Environmentalists say they may sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if the agency gives the plan the green light.
State forestry officials, who have spent over five years working on the new plan, believe it will withstand this initial criticism.
According to Lecture, the plan cleaves a path between the two fundamental schools of thought that have dominated forest debates in recent years: allowing forests to be heavily logged or simply closing down logging altogether to protect wildlife.
The agency calls its third option "active management." Under it, logging would be delayed in about 60 percent of the 600,000 acres that comprise the Clatsop and Tillamook forests. The 40 percent to be logged would include generally younger, crowded stands that aren't suitable spotted owl habitat, says Lecture.
Though state scientists predict the thinning operations will eventually improve habitat for owls, they acknowledge that the short-term effects are unclear. One study showed that a male spotted owl left his home when the trees were thinned and never returned.
While Lecture says he's confident the owls will take to their new homes, he admits there's a chance the mysterious birds will throw a curve ball.
"No one can predict what the owl's going to do," he says.
Though the future of the owl may be uncertain, some environmentalists claim the state's intentions are crystal clear: It wants to allow more logging on state land.
"The real reason (for this plan) is to have a sustainable forestry program; that's their prime directive," says Keating of the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club and the Audubon Society of Portland want the state to designate reserves where logging would be off-limits.
"We've already logged it like crazy. All we're asking is to save some of it for owls," says Sybil Ackerman of Portland Audubon. "We don't need this (timber) windfall at the expense of the species."
Owl biologists see the habitat on state land as an important link to other struggling owl populations to the north and south, including parts of Washington. Eric Forsman, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service who has studied the spotted owl since the late 1960s, says state forests in Oregon are part of a habitat corridor, where birds can move freely between forests. The interaction of owl populations adds to their genetic diversity, making them more resilient in dealing with change, he says.
Researchers are unsure what will happen if the connection between owl habitats disappear, but even so, Forsman thinks Oregon's plan could work. His one concern is that existing habitat won't get adequate protection in the interim.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is also casting a thoughtful eye toward the plan.
"Anytime there's a new idea, one that hasn't been tested, we have to look at it fairly critically," says Phil Carroll, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "We're looking to get assurances that we're not precluding the survival of the species."
State forestry officials say they're working with the federal government and expect it to approve the plan by the end of the year.
Mike Stark is a freelance writer in Astoria, Oregon.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Oregon Department of Forestry, 503/945-7200;
- Audubon Society of Portland, 503/292-6855;
- Kristi DuBois, Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club, 503/238-0442.
Copyright 2001 HCN and Mike Stark