|Preserve the Northern Spotted Owl|
It has been two decades since the fate of a bashful bird that most people had never seen came to symbolize the bitter divide over whether to save or saw down the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest. Yet it was not until Thursday that the federal government offered its final plan to prevent the bird, the northern spotted owl, from going extinct. After repeated revisions, constant court fights and shifting science, the Fish and Wildlife Service presented a plan that addresses a range of threats to the owl, including some that few imagined when it was listed as a threatened species in 1990.
The newer threats include climate change and the arrival of a formidable feathered competitor, the barred owl, in the soaring old-growth evergreens of Washington, Oregon and California where spotted owls nest and hunt.
One experiment included in the plan: shooting hundreds of barred owls to see whether that helps spotted owls recover.
Even after all these years since the spotted owl became the cause célèbre of the environmental movement, it is far from clear that the plan is a solution. Advocates on both sides say it will inevitably be challenged, and both sides have expressed frustration with the Obama administration on the issue.
Some contentious points have still not been addressed, including precisely mapping the so-called critical habitat to be protected. And some experts say that while two decades of protections for the owl have helped preserve forest ecosystems, they are less certain that the bird itself can still be saved.
The spotted owl is declining by an average of 3 percent per year across its range. While some populations in Southern Oregon and Northern California are more stable, some of the steepest rates of decline are here in Washington. Some study areas in the Olympic and Cascade ranges show annual declines as high as 9 percent.
From the environmentalists' perspective, the benefits of preserving the northern spotted owl and its habitat far outweigh any of the costs. First, saving the spotted owl will save an entire ecosystem on which plants, other animals, and humans depend. The spotted owl is considered an indicator species -- a gauge of the health of the ecosystem that provides its habitat. The steady decline of this species signals the demise of other species, such as elk and flying squirrel, that inhabit these forests, and the disruption of the productive forces of nature that sustain human life. The ancient forests and the life they harbor form a complex web of interdependent relationships that play a critical role in preventing soil erosion, floods, and landslides, providing clean water for agriculture and cities, enhancing the productivity of salmon fisheries, enriching the soil with vital nutrients, and ameliorating the greenhouse effect. No amount of reforestation can replace this highly developed and diverse system which has taken millennia to evolve.
Second, society ought to preserve this species and the unique ecosystem it represents because of their aesthetic value. What kind of society would trade the magnificence of these virgin forests and the splendor of the life that inhabits them -- owl, elk, bald eagles, and mountain goats -- for paper cups and two-by-fours? To allow such a tradeoff is equivalent to destroying a great work of art that has taken centuries to create, and that will be a source of rich experience for generations of hikers, backpackers, bird-watchers, and millions of others seeking a natural world away from our teeming concrete cities.
Finally, the owl and its habitat are of immense scientific value, providing opportunities for inquiry and for increasing our understanding of this unique ecosystem and its role in our lives and in those of future generations.
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