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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Beyond the Spotted Owl

Air Date: Week of

William Dwyer, the judge who years ago curtailed logging in order to protect the spotted owl, recently issued a ruling that blocks about 50 timber sales - enough wood to build about 15 thousand homes. This time the ruling is about protecting some less charismatic species: mosses, salamanders and even slugs. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Orlando DeGuzman (day-gooz-MON) reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The timber war in the Pacific Northwest is on again. William Dwyer, the Federal judge who years ago ordered logging stopped to protect the spotted owl, ruled last month that the U.S. Forest Service broke the law in some recent deals with private timber companies. As a result, the judge has blocked about 50 timber sales, enough wood to build about 15,000 homes. And this time the ruling's about protecting some less than charismatic species, including mosses, salamanders, even slugs. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Orlando DeGuzman reports.

(Flowing water)

DeGUZMAN: One of the oldest and most diverse forests in the Pacific Northwest is near the cloud-covered summit of Mt. Pilchuck in the Cascade Mountain range. This is an area that Forest Service ecologist Robin Lesher has studied for years.

LESHER: It gets about 150 to 200 inches of rain here, which is about five times the rain that you get in the Seattle area. And that's part of the reason why the forests are so old here, is because of the climate.

DeGUZMAN: The drenching storms rolling in from the Pacific Ocean have shielded this forest from catastrophic fires, and have created a rich cover of moss, lichens, and fungi.

LESHER: That's what strikes you when you enter these forests, is that there is a lot of green, and a lot of the moss cover provides most of the species diversity in these forests. There might be 20 to 40 species of mosses and liverworts that occur in a stand this age.

DeGUZMAN: But for many years, these organisms were overshadowed by the
spotted owl. In the late 80s, environmentalists battled the timber
industry in the woods and in the courtroom over habitat for the elusive

(A crowd shouts)

MAN: I'll give you guys exactly five minutes. Anybody that does not want to go into custody, just step aside. Otherwise, we're just going to start handcuffing them. Five minutes.

DeGUZMAN: For three years logging on Federal land was banned. Then in 1993, President Clinton stepped in and brokered a compromise.

CLINTON: I'll probably make everybody mad, but I will try to be fair to the people whose livelihoods depend on this, and fair to the environment that we are all obligated to maintain.

DeGUZMAN: The President appointed a group of scientists who created the Northwest Forest Plan. Their mandate was to figure out a way to protect the owl while allowing some logging on old growth forests. But it became increasingly clear that it wasn't just the owl that needed protection. Dr. Jack Ward Thomas is one of the architects of the forest plan.

THOMAS: We went over nearly 1,000 species, and came down on the fact that there were probably about three or four hundred that had a very definite and close association with old growth. So, that kind of changed the game from a single focus on a single species to the array of species that might be associated with old growth.

DeGUZMAN: In the end nearly ten million acres of Federal land in northern California, Oregon, and Washington State were put permanently off limits to logging. But Dr. Jack Ward Thomas says scientists weren't sure if simply setting aside land for the owl was enough.

THOMAS: Is the plan put forward for the owl adequate to take care of all those other species? And that was the question: how sure are we of the viability of this array of species, given this plan?

DeGUZMAN: That's because if an area is disturbed, an owl can fly off. But mosses and slugs aren't that mobile. Dr. Jerry Franklin also helped craft the forest plan. He says the main intention wasn't to protect every single plant and animal, but to set aside large tractsof their habitat.

FRANKLIN: The Northwest Forest Plan was to preserve habitat for the spotted owls on a massive scale. You know, as far as we knew in developing the plan, it was adequate.

DeGUZMAN: But deciding how much protection is enough is as much a political question as it is a scientific one. While Dr. Franklin believes setting aside large chunks of land is enough to meet the legal requirements, the courts disagreed. Judge Dwyer has ruled that the Forest Service must conduct detailed wildlife surveys of 77 species. Some of these species are so obscure, they've been found at only two sites in the entire northwest.


DeGUZMAN: It's a painstaking and time-consuming search for many Forest Service biologists, like Sally Clagett. She's scouring the forest floor at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwestern Washington.


DeGUZMAN: Underneath a massive fallen log, Sally Claggett presses her eye against a ten-power magnifying glass. She's trying to identify a moss known as Boxbamia viridis, which botanists have nicknamed "bug on a stick."

CLAGGETT: You look right down the side of the tree, it'll stand out a little bit. That's the only way you can find it at all. It's quite small, and as you can see, it's obscure. It's the same color as the bark. Looks like one of these pine needles put right next to it.

DeGUZMAN: The Forest Service signed contracts with timber companies without checking for "but on a stick." Now, all the sales here are in limbo. Mt. Adams District Ranger Greg Cox says they don't have enough people to survey all the required species.

COX: Honestly, it would take an awful lot more people with proper training than what we've got right now. It's one of our biggest problems, is that our budgets have been declining, and we'd have to find new people, train them, and otherwise get them up to speed to come out here and do these kinds of surveys, if we really wanted to do it that quickly. That would be a tough order.

DeGUZMAN: The Forest Service has temporarily stopped approving all logging contracts. This time the shutdown is hitting a handful of small lumber mills that have managed to hang on after the spotted owl crisis.

(Wood saws)

DeGUZMAN: Unlike larger timber companies, Solid Wood Products, Incorporated, in Olympia, Washington, doesn't own large tracts of private forest land. Co- owner Tim Johnson instead buys logs sold on the open market. He expects Dwyer's decision to drive up the price of timber.

JOHNSON: You know, if you don't have your own timber base, you're in trouble. You're in real trouble. Especially if you're using the popular products, like Douglass fir, and hemlock. Because the big companies have their own timber base, which is they can put in their mills cheaper, so they're able to go out and pay more for the logs to keep their mills running at capacity.

DeGUZMAN: Jim Johnson says he's relying less and less on logs from national forests ever since the spotted owl shutdown. Over the years he's changed his saws and machinery to cut smaller logs from private land. But the future of other small mills is more uncertain. Timber industry spokesman Bob Dicks says Dwyer's ruling is unfair.

DICK: Realistically, what are we going to do? Stop the world? Stop living? Stop consuming? While we explore every possible species of plant or animal out there? I'm sure if you look at downtown Seattle, there is some fungi that perhaps lived there some time, and perhaps we ought to shut down the city of Seattle while we find out more about it? Does that make sense? Doesn't to me.

DeGUZMAN: Judge Dwyer has ordered the Forest Service, the timber companies, and the environmentalists to come up with an agreement outside his court. If they fail, he'll rule next month whether to make the temporary injunctions permanent. The impact of his decision could ultimately affect over half a million acres of Federal forest land. Meanwhile, law makers have come up with their own solution. The Senate has agreed to keep a rider in the Interior Appropriations Bill that would relax the wildlife survey requirements, effectively undoing Judge Dwyer's rulings. But the bill still needs to be approved by Congress and the President. For Living on Earth, I'm Orlando DeGuzman in Seattle.



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