How Spotted Owls gave us Free-Range Chicken


A standard Pacific Northwest export in the 1920s – 30″ x 30″ Douglas fir cants. Photo detail courtesy of West Coast Lumbermen’s Association

How Spotted Owls gave us Free-Range Chicken
by Jeff Libby

Book review of The Final Forest; Big Trees, Forks and the Pacific Northwest, by William Dietrich, 2010

The mind-blowingly naive mindset of hipster thought leaders in the early 1990s, even as satirized by the ultra ironic Portlandia, is hard to grasp just twenty years later. But if you’re getting on in years, like middle-aged pranksters Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, you probably remember the spotted owl rage. The setting of the national debate was Forks, Washington, lately of Twilight fame. But it wasn’t anything so unhinged and modern as heart throb vampires playing baseball by thunderstorm. The story line for Forks’ Twilight of the Nineties was simpler, almost wholesome – a relatively small, bright-eyed bird almost nobody had ever seen was in danger of extinction, and would only survive if the harvesting of a certain group of trees, known in timber industry speak as decadent virgin growth forest, was stopped.

On the ground, in Forks, the story was different. It was more about choice. You could save the bird, or you could save an axman. To hear the working families tell it, the entire Pacific Northwest timber industry was being sacrificed to save a single species of owl.  Timber barons and National Forest Service administrators were telling the same story, focusing on regional economies and predicted balance sheets of propogation and harvest. Bottom line, thousands of people would have to give up their livelihood and culture because a cabal of East Coast transplants and Washington DC activists had decided an endangered bird was more important than the working man. And for what – to preserve hiking trails.

As it turned out, the reality was that the timber industry was in a Twilight of its own. The old growth forest that scientists were claiming for owl habitat represented a tiny fraction of the forest available for harvest. And the old growth forest that was eventually put aside amounted to 2 to 5 percent of the massive centuries-old trees that white Americans first found in the mid-1800s when they began settling in the Pacific Northwest and northern California. In other words, by the 1990s, when the owl debate exploded, the old growth forest of the Pacific Northwest was already pretty much timed out, had been harvested, milled and sold. It was no different than the old growth forests of the mid-west and the East Coast before that. The Pacific Northwest forest was the final forest only in that we hadn’t quite gotten to it. It was the last chapter in our Manifest Destiny handbook, and as early as the 1940s, Weyerhaeuser and other lumber giants were already researching the alternatives for survival in a post-old growth world.

But as quickly as the giant trees came down, there were enough of them that it still took decades to cut through them to the sun. The conquest, such as it was, was laborious, and men were crushed like beetles along the way – there are endless photos of puny men with handsaws gathered in the freshly cut maw of a collosal tree about ready to fall. Cutting sped as blades morphed from manpower to machine power. The rain kept falling and the air stayed cool most the year – perfect climate for a forest to continue producing something on the order of four times the biomass of the Amazon jungle. More families arrived, usually during storms – these are the origin stories related by Dietrich from kitchen and sawmill. They humped it into the trees. The forest that was viewed alternatively as wild as decadent and as virginal eventually was tamed. The small towns grew, even if they didn’t always prosper. 4-H came. Streetlights. American Idol. Vampires. And meantime, the industry had begun planting new growth behind the clearcuts. Miles and miles of tree plantations in perfect grids were sprouting along riverbanks and over mountaintops like super slow-mo human waves. In roughly forty-year cycles – from seedling to harvest – this new forest, a managed crop, was emerging as the staple of the timber industry.

In a way, the spotted owl was less a harbinger of the end of an era and more our country’s first free range chicken. Up until the 1990s, wildlife biologists had tended to study one species at a time, each in its own silo. Protectionists for the spotted owl introduced the public to the ecosystem. It was a radical construct, to study animals and plants as part of a larger interconnected system. The idea that an owl might be inextricably linked to a habitat of definable trees, and that additionally, that habitat might need to be contiguous, for other species as well as owls to propagate successfully, was new, even if today that may seem obvious, and hardly up for debate. The idea spread, until scientists wanted to manage and protect a multitude of species said to need and be needed by old growth forest – from murrelets – another rare bird whose nests have yet to be observed directly – to the red-backed vole, a forest rat that eats only underground truffles, spreading spores critical to tree root health. Not surprisingly, this re-imagining of the forest as a complex web of interconnectedness eventually made its way to the restaurants, where hipsters and thought leaders are prone to gather, and – twenty years later – informed eaters are asking about the lives, i.e., habitat, of the chickens they eat. It shows discernment. It’s precious. And it’s beautiful.

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