Back in 1990, before Microsoft Windows was really a useful thing, and before Nirvana released Nevermind, and before Bill Clinton became the hippest, swinginest saxophone-playing presidential candidate ever seen on the Arsenio Hall Show, all the headlines were about a species of Oregon owl.
The Northern Spotted Owl sat around in old-growth forests and raised their families. They were small unassuming owls, standing about less than 20″ in height, and weighing about one pound. They are pretty impressive in flight, with a 42″ wingspan, but nobody saw them because, like I said, they lived in Oregon, in the rain, in old growth forests. Or, maybe I should all them “owled” growth forests. yukyukyuk…
On June 23, 1990, the US Fish and Wildlife Service invoked the Endangered Species Act, and listed the Northern Spotted Owl as “Threatened”. This essentially shut down logging in the most spotted, most owly areas.
And the loggers and small mill owners of Oregon went apeshit.
In my hometown, if you didn’t own a bumper that said “Spotted Owl–Finger Lickin’ Good” or “Kill an Owl–Save a logger,” you knew right where you could get one: they were sold at practically every grocery store in town. Plastic owls were hung in effigy from federal buildings.
My town had never been very political. In fact, if they had any kind of statement, it would have been “Keep the Government out of Our business.” We have always lived in unhappy tension because roughly 60% of Curry County is federal land. BLM (the Bureau of Land Management) is one of first Federal offices I had ever heard of. Money is made when the Forest Service sells timber off their forested lands. If this number is cut back, the entire county suffers: Jobs are lost. Mills are closed. People start making jokes about Owl tasting best when oil fried.
I had never really heard of environmentalists in our county before then. Greenpeace and its Rainbow Warrior ships were far, far away in the ocean, doing something we were relatively unconcerned with. The Exxon Valdez spilled its contents about a year before, but that was way up in Alaska… But that owl… and it didn’t even inhabit Curry County forests–it lived up and down the Willamette valley, made us despise a swath of people who, despite their best intentions (nobody really wants to eat owl), was destroying our livelihood.
Now, I lived far from Gold Beach by the time the Northern Spotted Owl took over the news. I could segregate the owl from my daily-goings on, indeed, most environmentalism. I had term papers to write, music to perform, and girls to leer at. Owls, and loggers, and environmentalists, were far removed from my notice except in some abstract way. I could rail at them, sure, but I never wanted to fry one. I never had some hippie perch high in the branches of a centuries-old douglas fir. It was a novelty, even though I worried for my family because lots of relatives, including my dad and 2 of his brothers, were employed by the timber industry.
I guess, after a fashion, I viewed the environmental movement as two groups of people: the working class folks, trying hard to feed their families; and upper-middle class folks with too much time on their hands, who can afford to chain themselves to logging equipment.
You probably see what happened here. The argument became more important than the owl. In fact, the owl fell out of the equation entirely.
It became an argument not about environment, but about culture. It wasn’t even a “Big Timber” versus the “little Guy” thing. It was about ignorant people nosing into the business of those folks who wanted to be left alone.
Speaking of little guys… Believe it or not, The environmentalists weren’t just concerned about the owl. Most scientists believe that the owl is an indicator species–it points do the health or disease of the ecosystem as a whole. So, if the owl population declines by 90%… The entirety of the forest/ watershed/ groundcover is beginning to die.
If you’ve ever seen a really old painting up close? It’s like that… paint begins chipping off. Pretty soon, Mona Lisa’s nose is missing. We can still see the beauty underneath. But then her smile begins to chip away. And soon, if we don’t do something, it’s simply not a painting anymore. It’s a really, old dirty canvas. The knowledge, the heritage, the thing that made it more than canvas, is gone.
So–if the canvas is the forest, and the owls are the details, the highlights that make it something special, we can’t afford to let it disappear. Even the loggers don’t want that. In fact, I’d wager that loggers see the conservation argument (taken by itself) as a valid one, and probably even like the little owls in all their strigid glory. But loggers also want their families to eat. And when it gets right down to the heart of things, that’s what matters.
Nobody likes dictums from on-high, especially the ones that say “you’ll have to be off work for several months, and feed your family ketchup sandwiches because, you see, there’s this owl that lives 100 miles away…” If environmentalists really want to make a change, they need to reframe the debate. Taking the cause of the environment away from the environmentalists is possibly the best thing that can happen to the movement. In fact, in some future post, I plan to talk a little more about that, and a little less than the Northern Spotted Owl.
I leave you with three random footnotes.
- I learned the word strigid while I was writing this post. It sounds classier than “owly”… which isn’t a word at all, except when I made it up a few paragraphs ago.
- My Uncle Rodney had the bumper sticker, about owls tasting best when oil-fried, on his Jeep. It was right after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, so it had some relevance beyond just a cooking method. My dad was never really a bumper sticker kind of guy.
- Totally as an aside: The Cherokee people have a story about how the owl got his spots. Mister Owl thought himself a pretty ugly guy. In fact, he thought he was so ugly that he was afraid to meet his wife’s family. On his wedding night, he stood away from the fire, far from his bride, and far from his in-laws. His two brothers-in-law were pranksters and wanted to know what was keeping Mister Owl from the firelight, so they threw sumac onto the fire. The fire popped like crazy. Mister Owl was forced to throw his wing up to protect his ugly face, and his feathers were covered in hot sparks. And these marks are how the owl got his spots.