1990: Newspaper Articles and Events

In 1990, the spotted owl controversy made international news. More television programs were aired about the owl and the forests, some of which generated significant public response. While national surveys showed support for protecting the owls and forests, polls in Oregon showed that state's residents were evenly split on the issue. Timber mills continued to shut down in the Pacific Northwest.

Timber sales from the 1989 compromise continued to be logged and generate controversy. It was discovered that nearly 15,000 acres of western Oregon old growth timber, which was occupied by spotted owls, would be logged under the compromise. Environmentalists filed a flurry of lawsuits to protect ancient forests and owl habitat, but most of the suits failed.

Many people accused the Forest Service of losing sight of its original conservation mission. In 1990, the Forest Service ranked first among all agencies for its amount of roads, which totaled some 350,000 miles, and the agency spent more money on cutting down trees than for any other purpose. Intense internal debates began within the Forest Service over old growth, spotted owls, and the pace of logging. These debates sparked some sweeping changes within the Forest Service.  An internal forum was created for disgruntled employees who thought that logging should be reduced, and that Forest Service Chief F. Dale Robertson had lost touch with the very real problem of overharvesting.

The timber industry, too, seemed primed for change, with mill closures, decreases in timber sales, increases in timber prices, public interest to preserve habitat, and continued litigation.

Proposals reemerged to reduce raw log exports and bolster the nation’s timber supply. Congress passed a law to allow Northwest states to ban log exports in some circumstances to help save the timber mills, but President Bush didn’t whole-heartedly agree with this plan. Some studies even showed that this might cost more jobs than it would save. Demand for western lumber reached an all time high this year.

As the date approached when the FWS would decide to officially list the spotted owl under the ESA, states and towns in the Northwest began to feel unprepared for the inevitable transition, and many areas began to plan for recession and the devastating effects it would have on the timber industry. Estimates on numbers of jobs and money that would be lost continued to come out.

Several people started to wonder how an exemption would be filed under the ESA for logging activities if the owl were to be listed. A few even proposed captive breeding of owls as a solution. Timber rallies continued, some of which ended in violence. A new report found that 76% of old growth forests had been logged since World War II, and the remainder would largely disappear within fifteen years at current rates. Spiking of trees and tree-sittings continued by environmental activist groups such as Earth First!

In April, the ISC published its report with management recommendations for spotted owl conservation. It was later discovered that more than 50% of the owl population lived outside of these proposed protection areas. Some timber sales were frozen in the areas mentioned in the ISC report. From the report it seemed that big changes in the timber industry were inevitable. Second growth mills, capable of handling smaller diameter trees, were called by many the wave of the future since much less old growth would be cut.

In June, several federal agencies published an economic report in response to the ISC publication. The economic report estimated that communities in the Pacific Northwest would lose 25,000 jobs by 1995 as a result of reduced harvest volumes.

This new report served to increase criticism on the ISC management plan from timber industries, which felt that the economic report proved how much devastation would occur. They claimed that there would be an increase in suicide, violence, divorce, social upheaval, and school closings. Other economists and environmentalists countered that the job loss estimate was too high, and the FWS said that the listing wouldn’t do as much damage as was previously estimated.

President Bush visited Portland, Oregon, and heard much about the spotted owl debate. He said that timber-related jobs must be considered before the forests are cordoned off to protect the spotted owl, and a balance between the environment and the economy was needed. Bush later opposed special laws to help those who would lose jobs due to environmental legislation.

Imperiled species other than the spotted owl also began to gain some attention. The marbled murrelet and the pond turtle were found to be in trouble, and many environmentalists wanted them listed under the ESA as well. Both of these species depend on the old growth forests to survive. The Mexican spotted owl, found north of the border in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, was found to be even rarer than its cousin, the northern spotted owl. Scientists began to collect information on this species and its habitat needs. Two cases were found in which a northern spotted owl had bred with the more aggressive barred owl, producing a new hybrid, the "sparred owl."

By late 1990, more mills had shut down and frustrations grew as the timber industry anticipated the final management plan. Some owl nesting information was stolen and it was thought that this information was used to locate and harm the birds so that logging could go ahead in that area. “No perfect solution exists” became a common phrase, as neither side of the spotted owl controversy was pleased with any proposed plan.

The year came to a close with a general trend towards more protection for the forests. Research was providing ever-more proof of the environmental harm caused by timber overharvest, such as soil problems, habitat fragmentation, landslides from logging roads and clearcuts, and increased flooding. Timber sales continued, but reflected the changes in Forest Service plans. Many small mills were forced to lay off workers, whether due to raw log exports, genuine timber shortages, or increased mechanization. The industry pleaded to Congress to find it more timber. Meanwhile, forests in Southwest U.S. begin to suffer from increased logging efforts, due to higher demands for timber. Both sides on the spotted owl debate start to donate large amounts of money to government officials running for office that may be sympathetic to their cause.

Below are a few interesting newspaper articles relating to events that happened in the year 1990:

Date: 4/8/90 “Curbs on Logging are Painful, Inevitable” From: The Columbian, WA.

Date: 5/2/90 “Radicals Target the Timber Industry” From: Miami Herald, FL.

Date: 6/17/90 “Timber Towns in NW Brace for Owl Ruling” From: The Oregonian, OR.

Date: 6/23/90 “Agency Orders Protection for Northern Spotted Owl” From: Rocky Mountain News, WA.

Date: 10/9/90 “A Better Way to Save Trees” From: The Wenatchee World, WA.

Date: 10/12/90 “Stop the Timber Harvest Now!” From: The Wenatchee World, WA.

Date: 12/23/90 “Voluntary Tack has Failed” From: The Missoulian, MT.


USFS and BLM. “Economic Effects of Implementing a Conservation Strategy for the Northern Spotted Owl.” USFS and BLM, 1990.

Northern Spotted Owl newsclippings, 1990 (all months)