Owl vs Owl

A northern spotted owl sits on a tree branch in Deschutes National Forest near Camp Sherman, Ore., in 2003. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

People have been expecting some more pardons as President Trump barrels noisily off the stage. But this one feels, at least to local biologists, more like the surprise handing down of a death sentence.

This past week, as people and politicians alike were consumed with the fallout of the Capitol riot, the Trump administration put out a “midnight regulation” — a sweeping rule change on your way out the door — that slams the Northwest’s signature, struggling northern spotted owl.

“It’s likely to be the elimination of northern spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest,” says Dave Werntz, a forest ecologist with the local environmental group Conservation Northwest. “It came out of the blue.”

What happened is the Interior Department had proposed, last summer, a relatively mild rollback in what’s called “critical habitat” for the owl, which is on the endangered species list. These protections bar most, though not all, logging of old-growth forest — those classic cathedrals of moss-covered, hundred-plus-year-old trees.

The proposal was to reopen to logging about 200,000 acres solely in Oregon. This drew little attention — the federal government’s record notes that “we notified the states of Washington, Oregon, and California of the proposed critical habitat designation. We did not receive comments from any state or state agency.”

But then last week, the feds shocked just about everyone by removing from protected status not just the 200,000 acres in Oregon, but 3.4 million acres across three states — more than one-third of the land set aside for the owl. This includes more than half a million acres of protected lands in the Cascades here in Washington, in three national forests — Mount Baker-Snoqualmie forest just east of Seattle, Okanogan-Wenatchee forest on the east side of the mountains, and Gifford Pinchot forest to the south.

The rule change will mean “a dramatic increase in logging in the old-growth woods,” says Susan Jane Brown of the Western Environmental Law Center in Oregon.

Werntz, who has been surveying owls and their habitats in the Cascades since the logging wars in the 1980s, said the scale of the decision is huge. In just one local forest — Okanogan-Wenatchee — the plan opens 40 percent of historic spotted owl nesting sites to logging, he says.

“This is restarting classic old-growth logging in the Cascades for the first time in decades,” Werntz said. “It’s kicking the spotted owl when it’s down.”

The timber industry argues that many of these nesting sites are no longer in use, as the spotted owl has been outcompeted by a rival, the barred owl, and its habitat degraded by wildfires. Environmentalists, and many biologists, countered that these stresses on the owl warrant more protections, not less.

The New York Times reported the decision was the work of outgoing Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who used to be a lobbyist for oil, gas and mining companies. The paper contended the ruling isn’t “backed up by the months of biological analysis previously conducted by the agency.”

Industry hailed it.

“This rule rights a wrong imposed on rural communities and businesses, and gives us a chance to restore balance to federal forest management and species conservation,” a timber industry statement said.

Said Brown: “There was no way for the public to know they were even considering eliminating millions of acres of owl habitat, because they never told us.”

This has been one of my top worries about Trump’s presidency from the beginning — that he would aggressively open public lands to drilling, mining and logging, at the bidding of industry, heedless to public opinion or how much the actions may degrade the environment.

It’s worth reflecting, as his term ends, what actual impact Trump has had on a range of issues (versus all the tweeting that so dominated the news coverage). My number one fear was that he would start a foreign war (I naively did not have Capitol insurrection on my Trump horrors bingo card). But he turned out to be less of a bomb-happy warmonger than any of his recent predecessors — including Obama, who billed himself as a peacemaker. So chalk up one point, a big one in my view, for Trump.

Another top fear of mine was that he would seek to deport masses of immigrants, including millions of the DACA immigrants who have never known any country but ours. This would have ripped the nation apart, and while he initially said he wanted to do it, he didn’t. In a cruel and pointless move he barred most refugees, and there was the infamous separation of children from families at the border. But after all the nativist talk, and the inane wall-building, his efforts were largely stymied by the courts and his impact on overall immigration levels will prove to be minimal.

But then there’s the environment. Here real damage has been done, from opening an Arctic refuge to potential oil drilling to gutting protections for migratory birds to this latest lightning strike on spotted owls. There’s also the incalculable opportunity cost of squandering four years the nation could have been advancing on alternative energy and climate change.

This spotted owl decision, like the others cited above, will be challenged in court, and it shouldn’t stand. You can’t just fire sale the legendary woods of the Pacific Northwest, what local writer Bill Dietrich dubbed “The Final Forest,” without telling anyone, can you?

It’s a last parting shot at the earth for the Trump era. Though there are still a few days left.

© 2021 The Seattle Times