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The First Spotted Owl War
Efforts in the 1980s to list the northern spotted owl as a threatened species fueled a heated battle over the logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Audubon’s editor-in-chief was an eyewitness who lived in a timber town at the time.

Northern spotted owl.
John and Karen Hollingsworth/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Excerpted from Showdown at Opal Creek: The Battle for America’s Last Wilderness (1993), by David Seideman

In timber towns, the federal government’s initial steps to list the spotted owl provoke the sort of hysteria seldom seen in the United States except in wartime. These small, isolated communities, whose way of life has carried on uninterruptedly for most of the century, unleash propaganda against the foreign forces of environmentalists befriending that cursed bird. The bumper-sticker brigades display unseemly slogans—I LOVE SPOTTED OWLS FRIED and SHOOT AN OWL, SAVE A LOGGER. (Mill City’s environmentalist, George Atiyeh, customizes his own baseball cap—SAVE AN OWL, EDUCATE A LOGGER. He has also boasted to the local paper of snapping up the one that read SAVE AN OWL, EAT A LOGGER that the general store sold, though I’ve yet to see him wear it.) Tailgaters cruising through Mill City editorialize on pickup trucks: NO TOILET PAPER, WIPE YOUR ASS WITH A SPOTTED OWL. Rubber chickens representing the spotted owls’ distant cousins dangle from rearview mirrors. Papa Al’s, Mill City’s fast-food joint, features such daily specials as “Endangered Logger” (a cheeseburger) and “Spotted Owl Soup” (homemade chicken and dumplings) on its menu board alongside the daily fare of fries, corn dogs, and milkshakes. A mock Campbell’s soup can bearing the off-color brand of “Cream of Spotted Owl” sits atop a file cabinet in mill owner Jim Morgan’s office. An employee of Verl Moberg of Fred Moore Logging gives him a jar of “pickled owl,” a rubber chicken floating in liquid.

Much of the rhetorical fury belies the ambivalence workers in the woods feel toward a creature few of them have ever seen. You won’t see any I LIKE MY SPOTTED OWLS FRIED slogans on log-truck driver Harvey Spear’s pickup. “Everybody keeps pissing, moaning, and groaning about it,” he says. “It’s not the owl, ’cause using everybody is using the poor little bird as leverage. The damn birds are totally innocent. It’s the people.”

Up the road a short piece, logger “Mad” Jack Stevenson articulates the passions of legions of loggers unable to fathom all the commotion. “I can’t see where that owl is gonna make a difference in the goddam world. Can you? A little-bitty owl?” he asks. “I don’t see where that owl contributes anything. If it kills rodents, I’ll buy some mousetraps. They work pretty good at catching a lot of mice. We don’t need owls. Let’s cut down the trees.” Stevenson heaps most of his contempt on environmentalists’ never-ending land grab. “You think anybody gives a fuck about that owl? There’s going to be no more old growth, but there’s no more dinosaurs or cavemen. They used to call it progress. Now it’s bad.”

Spears and Stevenson are both right. The spotted owl is in fact being used as an effective vehicle in the fight to save ancient forests. Since there exists only an Endangered Species Act but no Endangered Ecosystems Act, ecologists have sought to protect one species after another for their own sake and as vehicles for protecting their threatened habitat, including ancient forests. One Mill City logger happened upon a baby owl while driving around. He immediately brought the owlet to the local Forest Service office and tried trading it for a thousand acres of timber. In a moment of political mischief, Tom Hirons, the owner of Mad Creek Logging, hatches a devious plot calling for an ally to sue to protect the western snowy plover, a white and gray wading bird inhabiting some of the West’s toniest coastal communities and numbering fewer than 1,500. His gimlet eyes betray Hirons’s glee envisioning the disruption of the Malibu set’s way of life the way conservationists have disrupted his. Might he consider bumper stickers to popularize the cause? “Yeah,” Hirons exclaims, not missing a beat, “and they’ll say FUCK THE SNOWY PLOVER!” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently listed the plover as a threatened species. 


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