It was the most unlikely mascot. It spent its life in trees, looking pudgy, brown-eyed and curious. If you knew how to call it, it would answer you. But few people bothered, because the northern spotted owl preferred a life of seclusion among the mossy giants of the Northwest’s ancient forests.
Until the late 1980s, most Americans didn’t know it existed and didn’t think much about the woods in which it lived. That was before environmentalists used the birds' preference for old trees as a rallying cry to protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act, thus preventing chainsaws from leveling its forest habitat. It was a tactical move that used the power of the TV news media to introduce the public to the beauty of these majestic trees, the size of which most of the world had never seen. But the move also triggered an intense conflict that reshaped the social, environmental and economic fabric of the Northwest for a generation. The spotted owl became the face of what became known as the timber wars — a conflict with consequences that are still being borne out today.
What happened to the spotted owl in the decades after its image appeared on the cover of Time magazine and countless TV news programs of the 1990s? Did logging do it in? Logging didn’t make life for the owls any easier, but while everyone was arguing over how much, if any, old-growth should be saved from the sawmill, the barred owl, a native to the eastern U.S., was quietly making its way west. The barred owl is a bully, and the docile spotted owl was no match for the barred owls' aggressive nature and penchant for hijacking spotted owl nests. Scientists could only watch throughout the last several decades as barred owls moved into the forests of Oregon and Washington in ever-increasing numbers. Government biologists have tried shooting them to slow the invasion, but in areas where barred owls moved in, scientists now struggle to find spotted owls. In recent years, scientists from Oregon State University have had to resort to deploying technological eyes and ears in the woods to locate remaining spotted owls. They fear this technology may only capture the last hoots of a once iconic species.
Many of the towering giants of the Northwest at the center of the timber wars were old enough to be hundreds of years old at the time of the American Revolution. As lumber, these mega-trees were worth a pretty penny. Cutting them down and running them through the mill paid handsomely, and when environmentalists sought to protect the trees, they were mounting a direct assault on a way of life in communities where timber was king. The economic and human toll was devastating. Many towns have never recovered from the loss of timber jobs. In the decades since, some timber communities like Philomath started plotting a new way forward. But the cultural importance of timber remains. The annual Philomath Frolic & Rodeo is the centerpiece of Philomath’s efforts to maintain its timber roots and celebrate community pride.
Did the timber wars ever really end? In many ways, no. The polarized debates over climate change and other so-called “culture wars” have roots in the angry, “us or them” protests that defined the timber wars. But even in the heat of battle, some Oregonians found a path to compromise. In John Day, an unlikely coalition of environmentalists and timber workers formed the Blue Mountains Forest Partners. The result is a cooperative agreement that allows a local mill to stay open through the sustainable harvest of timber from the surrounding mountains while preserving habitat for another bird, the woodpecker.
For additional reporting, podcasts and videos that capture the many lessons and stories that have defined the last 30 years of this epic environmental battle, visit opb.org/timberwars.