Spotted Owl

A spotted owl sits in a tree in the Deschutes National Forest near Camp Sherman, Ore. The bird is under pressure from habitat destruction largely due to the decimation of old-growth forests from logging and timber harvesting.

I was the supervisor of Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest in 1996 when a huge landslide caused by shoddy road construction sent tons of mud and debris into a critical salmon stream. I felt terrible — and personally responsible. In the rush to build logging roads along treacherously steep hillsides, we mismanaged forests for decades and pushed salmon and spotted owls to the brink of extinction.

When I came to Washington, D.C., to become deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service a few years later, that Oregon landslide — and countless other road-building mistakes — motivated me to rewrite national forest policy. I was a chief architect of two landmark rules to reform logging and road-building in our national forests.

But I learned another important lesson: The Forest Service shouldn’t operate in a vacuum. The public should have its say, and we can’t cut it out of its rightful role just because that would be quick, easy or politically expedient.

This is why I’m so deeply troubled by the Trump administration’s latest attempt to roll back some of the most important rules protecting our national forests via the National Environmental Policy Act. That law has fostered government transparency and accountability for our environment and public health for 50 years. But a new Forest Service proposal would eliminate opportunities for citizen involvement and environmental review on more than 90% of all Forest Service projects.

I recall feeling miffed when, as a young Forest Service employee in the 1970s, NEPA required me to document why we did things such as cut down trees. Over time, I came to learn that many concerned citizens knew a lot more than I did. They also owned the public land where I worked on their behalf.

Federal agencies that authorize logging, mining and drilling on public land should aspire to accountability, transparency, trustworthiness and scientific rigor. So when the Forest Service claims that sweeping changes to its NEPA rules will “increase efficiency,” I measure its proposal against those bedrock principles.

During my 34-year career with the Forest Service, I authored several rule changes. But with this one, I see smoke and mirrors.

Buried deep within 16 pages of legalese are some nasty surprises: a nearly unlimited license to commercially log nearly seven square miles — about 3,000 football fields — or build five miles of logging roads at a time without involving the public or disclosing environmental consequences.

This proposed rule will stifle citizen participation, foster deepened opposition and increase litigation.

The Forest Service’s road-building system is still flawed, and forest road impacts are long-lasting and often severe. So it’s irresponsible to propose constructing hundreds more miles of national forest roads without public input or environmental review of the potential consequences.

We didn’t expect that Oregon road to fail, but it did. I don’t care how laudable your intentions are, the idea of logging seven square miles at a time while keeping the public in the dark is reckless.

Forest Service officials say the agency no longer has the resources to do its job because increased wildfire costs are busting the budget. The rule change, they wrongly claim, will increase efficiency. Their argument boils down to this: “Because we’ve heard from the public and documented our projects for years, we no longer need to do any of that. Trust us. We’re experienced.”

The Forest Service wants us to believe that it will OK logging, mining, road-building and other projects on public lands, but that nothing bad will happen. But, unfortunately, the agency doesn’t have the track record to make that claim.

If the near extinction of the spotted owl caused by liquidating the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests taught us anything, it’s that when the public objects to your work, cutting it out of the process is a fool’s bargain. The Forest Service seems to have forgotten this.

President Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue are hellbent on increasing logging in our national forests, and they’re squeezing the Forest Service hard. But the agency shouldn’t take it out on the people it is sworn to serve.

The Forest Service should be broadening opportunities for public input and collaboration, not shutting them down. It should hold firm to the light of transparency and accountability, not opt for making decisions in the dark.

Jim Furnish is a consulting forester in Iowa, following a 34-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, including serving as the agency’s deputy chief from 1999 to 2002. The views expressed here are solely his own.

Jim Furnish is a consulting forester in Iowa, following a 34-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, including as the agency's deputy chief from 1999 to 2002. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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(1) comment

Bob Zybach

Hello: I have been involved with, and negatively affected by, spotted owl regulations since they were first developed under the Endangered Species Act in the 1980s. This included a number of years in which Jim Furnish was Supervisor of the Siuslaw National Forest in western Oregon. His tenure was a disaster for local forest-related businesses and rural families and communities through his determined efforts to shut down logging and "decommission" public roads (i.e., make them unusable to the public).

The self-serving story he relates on the landslide and the road occurred in an area of constant landslide activities that have been taking place for thousands of years. Steep hills, thin soils, and seasonal driving rains and winds do that. 1996 featured two exceptional -- and historic -- rainstorms and subsequent flooding events and there were far more landslides than usual that year; very many involving roads and highways built to fine engineering standards. The slide had nothing at all to do with "shoddy road construction," as Furnish states, and everything to do with unusually harsh weather conditions, soil, and slope.

Roads are used by loggers, recreationists, children, the elderly and handicapped, campers, hunters, fishermen, hikers, bikers, sight-seers, bird watchers, and berry pickers. They are usually established in forested areas that started as foot trails thousands of years ago and for similar reasons of access and utility. The roads in the Siuslaw are one of its main assets and their existence has never been scientifically shown to negatively affect the life of even a single owl of any species; and excepting the possible very rare collision with a moving vehicle.

When Furnish states: "If the near extinction of the spotted owl caused by liquidating the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests taught us anything, it’s that when the public objects to your work, cutting it out of the process is a fool’s bargain," he is just making things up and using more scary -- and purposefully false -- adjectives such as "liquidating" and "near extinction." Nonsense and hyperbole.

The spotted owl controversy has caused billions of dollars of economic damage to the Pacific Northwest, led by the newly NEPA/ESA environmental law industry created at their inceptions, and by willing government bureaucrats such as Jim Furnish. Spotted owls have demonstrated that they are not dependent on old-growth forests for their existence. They have apparently always existed in small numbers over an unknown length of time, do fine in oaken woodlands and second-growth forests, hunt in fields and prairies, and can successfully inter-breed with the most widespread and populous brown-eyed owl in North America: the common "hoot" -- or "barred" -- owl.

Darwin would have called them separate "races" of the same common species. They are far more closely related biologically and in appearance than most human races, and the government is spending millions of dollars to systematically hunt and kill barred owls encroaching in spotted owl territories. For what reason? Racial purity? Better conformance with the failed computer model "predictions"? Government boondoggle?

There is no evidence, none, zero, that the birds were actually near extinction or that logging has much of anything to do with their current or past numbers. My PhD is in the study of western Oregon forest and wildfire history and I can state with certainty that the large number of massive fires we have experienced in the past 30 years are almost all occurring on federal forest lands and were accurately predicted by myself and others more than 25 years ago -- almost entirely because of passive federal management regulations such as the ones Furnish has championed.

Human beings are also visitors and occupants of our nation's forests and should be allowed at least as much consideration as our relatively rare birds. The recent ESA rulings seem to be a step in the right direction and based on common sense and facts, rather than computer model print-outs based on unstated and inaccurate assumptions. It is time to finally put humans back into the equation when it comes to management of our public lands. The gross mismanagement of the past 30 years needs to stop, both for the benefit of people and for the benefit of all species of our native wildlife.

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