Spotted Owls and the National Christmas Tree

A pair of Mexican spotted owl fledglings. Apache Sitgreaves National Forest. Photo: National Park Service.

The national Christmas tree this year will come from my home state of New Mexico. It might be the only Christmas tree that comes from a national forest in New Mexico — and if that happens, people are going to blame me. That’s because my organization, WildEarth Guardians, won a court ruling halting all timber management on 12 million acres of national forests in the Southwest.

The injunction stems from an Endangered Species Act lawsuit concerning the Mexican spotted owl, which depends on ancient forests. The owl was placed on the endangered species list 26 years ago. However, that injunction, issued by a federal judge last month, is not the reason nobody can have a Christmas tree. It’s not the reason some firewood collection was halted in New Mexico national forests. Nor is it the reason all trail maintenance work has been halted.

The actual reason is this — the Forest Service has unilaterally restricted those activities in an attempt to engender hostility between people who otherwise support environmental protection. It’s a cynical effort to divide people instead of being accountable to the law.

Instead of doing its job, the Forest Service has chosen to launch a disinformation campaign to confuse the issue. It’s trying to deflect attention onto WildEarth Guardians in the hope that people won’t see its failures to follow the law, care for an endangered animal and be responsible.

Instead of doing its job, the Forest Service is relying on an old and overused trope, that environmentalists care about the spotted owl more than they do about people. The truth is, we simply want to the Forest Service to do its job.

The spotted owl was placed on the endangered species list as the prescription for preventing its extinction. If a doctor, a good doctor, were to prescribe medicine for a disease, that doctor would do follow-up work to determine if the patient was getting better. The Forest Service has done no such follow-up — for decades. If a doctor did what the Forest Service, did they’d be sued for malpractice. And that’s exactly what we did.

As part of its mission to sustain the health and diversity of the nation’s forests, it’s the responsibility of the Forest Service to monitor the health of the spotted owl population. In this case, the Forest Service broke its promise and failed its mission. Moreover, it has failed to monitor the health of the forest itself. And this is an even bigger issue. That’s because across the Southwest and across our nation, the Forest Service is engaged in a massive experiment based on an unproven idea that we must log our forests in order to save them.

We know nothing about the effects of this experiment on the spotted owl. The government itself has said, “Unfortunately, empirical data on the effects of thinning and other mechanical forest treatments on Mexican spotted owls are nonexistent.” That’s because it refuses to do that study.

Without a shred of supporting data, the Forest Service determined the best way to serve the owl is to cut down some of the very forest it depends on. It sounds absurd, but it’s true. It’s like an incompetent doctor who still thinks bleeding a patient might help.

Why does this even matter? Because core to this dispute is the legal principle that science, not politics or fear, should guide the management of our national forests. That principle is embedded both in the Endangered Species Act and a century of Forest Service policy. Of course, with rigorous science comes data — data the agency might not want to hear or act on. If it did, our forests would be better managed, not just for the owl but for all Americans.

The greatest gift of our national forests is not the national Christmas tree. Nor is it timber, much less firewood. Their greatest gift is their beauty, diverse wildlife and the possibility for Americans to experience a sense of wonder.

Last weekend, I camped in a national forest that is one of the last strongholds of the spotted owl, a place where ancient firs and pines reach to the sky.

I was awakened by a pair of spotted owls hooting. I woke my twin 6-year-olds and watched with delight as their eyes widened and their jaws dropped. We listened for what seemed like an eternity to the owl’s calls and then drifted back to sleep. That’s a gift that will last a lifetime and one that I’m working to ensure future generations can experience, too.

John Horning is executive director of WildEarth Guardians in Santa Fe. 

More articles by:

John Horning is the executive director of WildEarth Guardians, which protects and restores the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West.  

July 14, 2020
Anthony DiMaggio
Canceling the Cancel Culture: Enriching Discourse or Dumbing it Down?
Patrick Cockburn
Boris Johnson Should not be Making New Global Enemies When His Country is in a Shambles
Frank Joyce
Lift From the Bottom? Yes.
Richard C. Gross
The Crackdown on Foreign Students
Steven Salaita
Should We Cancel “Cancel Culture”?
Paul Street
Sorry, the Chicago Blackhawks Need to Change Their Name and Logo
Jonathan Cook
‘Cancel Culture’ Letter is About Stifling Free Speech, Not Protecting It
John Feffer
The Global Rushmore of Autocrats
C. Douglas Lummis
Pillar of Sand in Okinawa
B. Nimri Aziz
Soft Power: Americans in Its Grip at Home Must Face the Mischief It Wields by BNimri Aziz July 11/2020
Cesar Chelala
What was lost when Ringling Bros. Left the Circus
Dan Bacher
California Regulators Approve 12 New Permits for Chevron to Frack in Kern County
George Wuerthner
Shrinking Wilderness in the Gallatin Range
Lawrence Davidson
Woodrow Wilson’s Racism: the Basis For His Support of Zionism
Binoy Kampmark
Mosques, Museums and Politics: the Fate of Hagia Sophia
Dean Baker
Propaganda on Government Action and Inequality from David Leonhardt
July 13, 2020
Gerald Sussman
The Russiagate Spectacle: Season 2?
Ishmael Reed
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Perry Mason Moment
Jack Rasmus
Why the 3rd Quarter US Economic ‘Rebound’ Will Falter
W. T. Whitney
Oil Comes First in Peru, Not Coronavirus Danger, Not Indigenous Rights
Ralph Nader
The Enduring Case for Demanding Trump’s Resignation
Raghav Kaushik – Arun Gupta
On Coronavirus and the Anti-Police-Brutality Uprising
Deborah James
Digital Trade Rules: a Disastrous New Constitution for the Global Economy Written by and for Big Tech
Howard Lisnoff
Remembering the Nuclear Freeze Movement and Its Futility
Sam Pizzigati
Will the Biden-Sanders Economic Task Force Rattle the Rich?
Allen Baker
Trump’s Stance on Foreign College Students Digs US Economic Hole Even Deeper
Binoy Kampmark
The Coronavirus Seal: Victoria’s Borders Close
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Power, Knowledge and Virtue
Weekend Edition
July 10, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Lynnette Grey Bull
Trump’s Postcard to America From the Shrine of Hypocrisy
Anthony DiMaggio
Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism
David Yearsley
Morricone: Maestro of Music and Image
Jeffrey St. Clair
“I Could Live With That”: How the CIA Made Afghanistan Safe for the Opium Trade
Rob Urie
Democracy and the Illusion of Choice
Paul Street
Imperial Blind Spots and a Question for Obama
Vijay Prashad
The U.S. and UK are a Wrecking Ball Crew Against the Pillars of Internationalism
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post and Its Cold War Drums
Richard C. Gross
Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)
Chris Krupp
Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 
Alda Facio
What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Inequality, Discrimination and the Importance of Caring
Eve Ottenberg
Bounty Tales
Andrew Levine
Silver Linings Ahead?
John Kendall Hawkins
FrankenBob: The Self-Made Dylan
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Deutsche Bank Fined $150 Million for Enabling Jeffrey Epstein; Where’s the Fine Against JPMorgan Chase?
David Rosen
Inequality and the End of the American Dream
Louis Proyect
Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic