It’s the 1990s in the Pacific Northwest. A march of chainsaws clear-cuts the country’s last available ancient forests. Protesters bury themselves in front of bulldozers and spend months sitting in the tallest trees in the world. And at the center, the Northern Spotted Owl becomes the most controversial bird in the country.
Hosted and produced by OPB’s Aaron Scott in collaboration with 30 Minutes West (“Bundyville,” “Outside Podcast”) and with original music by the singer-songwriter Laura Gibson, “Timber Wars” is a seven-part podcast series from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Episodes are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, the NPR One app and at opb.org.
“Timber Wars“ tells the behind-the-scenes story of how a small group of activists and scientists turned the fight over ancient trees and a bird that no one had heard about into one of the biggest environmental conflicts of the 20th century.
In addition to the podcast, OPB is releasing an accompanying e-newsletter series that combines the podcast with further OPB reporting to take readers through the history of this epic battle — and explores the ways it’s playing out still — in stories, images, videos and more.
Episode 1: The last stand
When loggers headed into the forest on Easter Sunday in 1989, they found a line of protesters blocking the road. The ensuing battle would help catapult old-growth forests into a national issue, and become known as the “Easter Massacre.”
Episode 2: The forest
For most of America’s history, trees were seen as crops, and the plan was to log the country’s last virgin forests and make them de facto tree farms. We see forests very differently today. How did things change so quickly?
Episode 3: The owl
Depending on who you are, the northern spotted owl is either the hero of this story, or the villain. And the Endangered Species Act is either an incredible conservation tool, or a hammer that smashes rural economies. But those beliefs miss the fact that it was a single sentence in an entirely different law that locked up the forests. How a reclusive bird halted the march of chainsaws.
Episode 4: Mill City
Mill City was one of dozens of flourishing timber towns, where a job in the woods or at the local sawmill could support a good life. But protests and court cases upended that, leaving locals to ask: are owls more endangered than loggers?
Episode 5: The plan
The Timber Wars grew so hot that one of President Clinton’s first acts in office was to fly half his cabinet to Portland to resolve the conflict. The result was the Northwest Forest Plan, the most sweeping conservation plan in U.S. history. But it might never have happened if not for some behind-the-scenes dramas that played out in a Capitol Hill bathroom-turned-office and a presidential lunch buffet.
Episode 6: The backlash
Before the Northwest Forest Plan had a chance to succeed, Congress seized upon the threat of wildfires to create a loophole and throw the plan out the window. With old growth once again being logged, the fight to defend it grew both more mainstream and more violent, seeding the tactics for conflicts to come.
Episode 7: A way forward
Is the Northwest fatally divided, or can we overcome our differences and work together? We tell the story of one group of loggers and environmentalists, the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, who have found some semblance of common ground. But it didn’t come easy. And no one knows how long it’ll last. Is there a way to manage our forests that’s good for forests and small towns?
Bonus episode: Big money bought the forest
While we’ve focused on national forests in “Timber Wars,” our colleague Tony Schick was partnering with ProPublica and The Oregonian to investigate one of its modern-day consequences: the rise of investment portfolio ownership of Oregon’s private forests, and how this has impacted rural communities. Because despite the belief that the spotted owl shut down the forests, big timber corporations have continued cutting trees; they just do it on private land while employing fewer people and contributing much less back to the local economies.
Bonus episode: Wildfire
The fight over wildfire and forest management is the newest front in the Timber Wars. So after a year of record fires, we take a deep dive into OPB’s reporting on wildfire and why it’s so hard to agree on what we should do about it.
Additional reading/watching list
“Big money bought Oregon’s forests. Small timber communities are paying the price.” by Tony Schick, Rob Davis and Lylla Younes
“How a public institute in Oregon became a de facto lobbying arm of the timber industry” by Tony Schick, Rob Davis and Lylla Younes
“Last Call: Tracking The Sound Of The Spotted Owl’s Extinction” by Ian McCluskey
“Old Growth Could Be Key For Native Songbird Species To Beat Climate-Change Heat” by Jes Burns (filmed in the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest)
“Flames of Dissent” series by Kera Abraham, “Eugene Weekly,” that starts with Warner Creek and follows the story of Eugene’s eco-radical era
“Tree Huggers: Victory, Defeat & Renewal in the Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign” by Kathie Durbin
“Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest” by William Dietrich
“Showdown at Opal Creek: The Battle for America’s Last Wilderness” by David Seideman
“The Wisdom of the Spotted Owl: Policy Lessons for a New Century” by Steven Lewis Yaffee
“The Hidden Forest: The Biography of an Ecosystem” by Jon R. Luoma (about the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest)
“In a Dark Wood” by Alston Chase
“Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests” by Erik Loomis
“The Overstory: A Novel” by Richard Powers
“Mill City” by OPB
“Rage Over Trees” by the Audubon Society
“If a Tree Falls: A Story about the Earth Liberation Front”
“Of Spotted Owls, Old Growth, and New Policies: A History Since the Interagency Scientific Committee Report” by Bruce G. Marcot and Jack Ward Thomas
“Seattle Audubon Soc. v. Evans” by Judge William Dwyer
“The Ecological Characteristics of Old Growth Douglas Fir Forests” by Jerry Franklin et al.
“Forest Ecosystem Management: An Ecological, Economic, and Social Assessment” by Jack Ward Thomas et al. [Executive Summary]
“The Northwest Forest Plan: Origins, Components, Implementation Experience, and Suggestions for Change” by Jack Ward Thomas et al.
“25 Years After the NW Forest Plan: What Have We Learned” by Tom Spies et al.
Written and reported by Aaron Scott, with editing from Peter Frick-Wright, Robbie Carver, David Steves and Ed Jahn
Produced by Aaron Scott and Peter Frick-Wright and Robbie Carver of 30 Minutes West
Music composed and performed by Laura Gibson
Sound design by Robbie Carver
Mastering by Steven Kray
Fact checking by Matt Giles
Legal oversight by Rebecca Morris
Marketing and publicity by Jennifer McCormick and Lauren Elkanich
Research help from Erin Ross
Executive Producer Ed Jahn
Born in Fire
KEZI-TV/Chambers Communication Corporation records, Coll 427, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries.
All the people who shared their stories and time with us
NPR Story Lab Program: Michael May, Cara Tallo, Matt Ozug, Katie Daugert, Adelina Lancianese, Sam Leeds
Jenna Molster & Daniel Wood, Rights & Permissions, NPR
Nathan Georgitis & Lauren Goss, University of Oregon Libraries, Special Collections & University Archives
Steve Bass, Jes Burns, Lauren Dake, Anna Griffin, Jan Boyd, Julie Feely, Ryan Haas, Morgan Holm, Anne Ibach, Cheryl Ikemiya, Laurie Isola, Andy Lee, Crystal Ligori, Jeff Mapes, Ian McCluskey, Geoff Norcross, Marci Ozawa, Anthony Schick, Nalin Silva, Eric Slade, Todd Sonflieth, Brandon Swanson, Stephanie Stewart, Ann Suckow, Sage Van Wing, Bryan Vance, Dirk VanderHart, Todd Witter, and everyone else at OPB who helped with this project