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Recount in the Forests Bush Puts Out a Contract on the Spotted Owl

Bush Puts Out a Contract on the Spotted Owl

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Every summer for the past ten years young biologists head off into the forests of the Pacific Northwest to call spotted owls. Every year they get fewer and fewer responses. The spotted owl, which thrives only in the oldest of forests, is in a downward spiral toward extinction. Take the rainforests of Washington’s Olympic peninsula. There the owls, isolated in a desert of clearcuts and sprawl, are rapidly disappearing. According to the most recent surveys, these Olympic peninsula owls have declined by more than half in the last decade alone. At this rate the secretive bird may well become extinct by 2010.

In the Cascade Range of western Washington and Oregon, the owls, jeopardized by continued logging on private and federal forest lands, aren’t doing any better. Populations are plummeting at a rate of 5 to 8 percent every year. Give the owl in those tattered mountains another 25 years at most, unless all logging stops.

So the numbers just aren’t adding up right for Bush, who promised the timber industry that he would reinvigorate logging across the owl’s habitat. As it now stands, the Bush administration has produced far less timber for its clients than did the Clinton administration. The natives are getting restless.

With the numbers stacked against them, the Bush team has attacked the counters. Sound familiar? Remember Palm Beach County? The Bush crowd now echoes one of the most paranoid accusations of big timber: that the Fish and Wildlife Service is intentionally undercounting the owl population in order to suppress logging on federal lands in the Pacific Northwest. The Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bush flacks charge, is too biased in favor of protecting…you guessed it…wildlife. This must come as a shock to both environmental groups and the agency, which is facing dozens of lawsuits for not moving fast enough to protect a slate of vanishing species, from the gray wolf and grizzly to the northern goshawk and bull trout.

So for the first time ever, the Bush administration hired private firms to assess the status of two bird species threatened by logging in the northwest: the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet. The spotted owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 and the murrelet, a small sea-bird that nests in ancient coastal forests, in 1992.

The two private firms will be paid about $800,000 for the biological reviews of the status of the birds. These aren’t just any private consulting firms, either. Both have sturdy financial ties to the timber industry. The status of spotted owl will be reviewed by the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute. Last year alone, the institute received more than $270,000 from Pacific Lumber_roughly 44 percent of its total revenue. Pacific Lumber, corporate molester of the redwoods of northern California, hired Sustainable Ecosystems to review of the status of the marbled murrelet on company-owned lands of redwood forest in Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Pacific Lumber isn’t its only client in big timber. Sustainable Ecosystems also received money from Boise Cascade, Weyerhaeuser, Potlatch and Rayonier. The firm’s website refers to these timber giants warmly as "sponsors and partners."

The genus behind this scheme to privatize the spotted owl recount is Mark Rey, the Paul Wolfowitz of the chainsaw brigades. Rey, once the most feared timber industry lobbyist on the Hill, is now deputy secretary of agriculture overseeing the Forest Service. He has been at war against the owl and its defenders for 20 years: orchestrating numerous industry lawsuits, directing campaign contributions to pro-timber legislators, drafting legislation that exempted logging in owl habitat from compliance with environmental laws.

The owl recount resulted from a 2002 lawsuit that Rey helped concoct with his former clients at the American Forest Resource Council and the Western Council of Industrial Workers, a union under the thumb of the bosses of big timber.

In early 2001, the Bush administration ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to halt status reviews of owl and murrelet populations, which are required every five years by the Endangered Species Act. The administration claimed poverty_it simply didn’t have enough money to conduct a proper evaluation. Then Rey urged his cohorts in the timber industry to sue the government to compel the review. The industry sued and won. It was a calculated gamble. To get more than a trickle of timber flowing from federal forests, the industry needs the owl delisted. But the population trends all point down. Thus, there was the risk that an unbiased review by the Fish and Wildlife Service might lead to the owl being upgraded to an endangered species, greatly expanding restrictions on logging, roadbuilding and other developments across the region_even on private land.

That’s when Rey floated the scheme of taking the reviews from the hands of the Fish and Wildlife Service and giving it to a private outfit with ties to the timber industry. Big timber pins its hopes on two factors that certainly wouldn’t survive scrutiny by biologists at the Fish and Wildlife Service. First, it wants to introduce owl surveys conducted by the industry purporting to show a thriving population of young owls in cut-over forests in Oregon and northern California, surveys widely regarded as junk science by most ecologists. Second, the industry desperately wants the population of the California spotted owl (a distinct species inhabiting the Sierra Nevada range) to be double counted as part of the northern spotted owl population. Seen one owl, seen them all.

The private review team will be headed by discredited forest ecologist Jerry Franklin. Franklin, once the dean of Forest Service researchers, cashed in his reputation during the 1990s for a position at the University of Washington school of forestry, a program lavishly underwritten by Weyerhaeuser. He was later called upon by Clinton to head up the team that developed the infamous Option 9 plan for northwest forests, which legitimized continued logging in spotted owl habitat. The decline of the owl has been steeper under Franklin’s plan than it was during the logging frenzy of the Reagan and Bush I years. Fresh from this triumph, Franklin began to hire himself out as a consultant to any timber company that would have him.

Like David Kay and his band of weapons hunters in Iraq, Franklin and the Bush owl mercenaries will scour the forests of the Northwest for birds that simply aren’t there. If Franklin produces a report suggesting that the owl population has miraculously rebounded, he and his team will almost certainly have cooked the books.

All this is part and parcel of a larger Bush project to privatize the work of natural resource agencies, from Park Service interpreters to firefighters. The move serves cherished objectives of the corporate cabal now running the White House: neuter the agencies, break the power of the federal employees union and transfer crucial work to compliant outside contractors. These contracts, often handed out to political patrons of the Bush crowd, come with an unwritten codicil: produce the results the administration wants or risk losing future deals. You’re either with us or against us. It won’t take long for that lesson to be drilled home.

It could have been different. In 1990, the spotted owl won a chance at survival when federal ( and Reagan-appointed) judge William Dwyer, slapped an injunction on all logging in the owl’s habitat. It was a courageous decision that prompted a freshet of death threats. Dwyer shrugged them off. The enviros largely cowered and finally caved when confronted with political blackmail by Clinton. They relinquished the hard-won injunction and sanctioned Jerry Franklin’s logging plan, which condemned the owl to smaller and smaller micro-reserves of forest that served as little more than a kind of ecological death row.

Then big greens, now foraging for grants on salmon and the boondoggle of "restoration forestry", turned their back on the spotted owl, once their totemic species. To continue to press for protection of the owl and its habitat would have meant an aggressive confrontation with Clinton and Bruce Babbitt. And they wanted none of that. "We haven’t actively focused on the spotted owl in several years," says Heath Packard of the National Audubon Society. This is a damning admission given that the Audubon Society had raised millions on behalf of the owl and stood mute as the bird slid toward statistical death, a slow motion extinction.

So after two decades of fierce warfare in the forests of the Pacific Northwest the spotted owl and dozens of other species that cling to the last of the old growth forests appear doomed. Bush will get the blame, but the fingerprints on the death warrant are decidedly bi-partisan