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In the 1980s and ’90s, loggers and environmental activists faced off over the future of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. In this episode, Reveal partners with the podcast series Timber Wars from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Reporter Aaron Scott explores that definitive moment in the history of the land – and the consequences that reverberate today. 

We begin with an event that became known as the Easter Massacre, in which a stand of old-growth trees in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest was cut down despite protests that attracted national media attention. 

The Easter Massacre helped galvanize the environmental movement. Protests intensified in the forests, but environmentalists kept losing in the courtroom because there aren’t many laws to protect ecosystems. There are, however, laws to protect animals. 

We explore how a small team bet it all on the northern spotted owl in a high-stakes strategy that involved the science of fruit flies and secret meetings at lobster shacks. While environmentalists ultimately succeeded in locking down millions of acres of forests, that success turned what had been bipartisan environmental laws, like the Endangered Species Act, into cultural wedges. 

We end with how this conflict affected one timber town and how this fight that started decades ago continues to rage on. With the rise of climate change and the threat of intensifying wildfires, battles over the role of forests take on even greater significance.

This is a rebroadcast of an episode that originally aired Feb. 13, 2021.

Dig Deeper

Listen: Timber Wars podcast

Read: More of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s reporting on the Timber Wars, including an investigation into how the timber industry operates today.

Credits

Reported by: Aaron Scott | Produced by: Aaron Scott, Peter Frick-Wright and Robbie Carver | Edited by: Brett Myers, David Steves and Ed Jahn | Fact checking by: Matt Jiles | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Production assistance: Brett Simpson| Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Music: Laura Gibson | Mixing and sound design: Robbie Carver, Steven Kray, Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson

Special thanks: The NPR Story Lab. Also to NPR and the KEZI-TV/Chambers Communications Corp. collection at the University of Oregon Libraries for archival audio. Episode photo courtesy of Stephan Weaver.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

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Al Letson:From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. The wildfire season started early this year, which has people worried that it could be as bad as last year. And for people like me who live on the West Coast, well that’s terrifying because last year’s wildfire season was horrific. Dim orange skies, air that was dangerous to breathe, and ash falling from above for weeks on end, not to mention the actual fires themselves. Here in California, more than four million acres, an area bigger than Connecticut were incinerated. There were record-setting fires all over the West. This is Oregon Governor, Kate Brown, on CBS’s Face The Nation.
Kate Brown:Every year, for the last 10 years, we burn about 500,000 acres. This year, this week alone, we’ve burned over a million acres of beautiful Oregon.
Al Letson:When the governor talks about beautiful Oregon, she’s talking about places like Mill City in the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains. It’s surrounded by towering forests.
Tim Kirsch:I want to say about 9:30, 10:00 at night, I started hearing a fire whistle blow off in town.
Al Letson:Tim Kirsch is the Mayor of Mill City.
Tim Kirsch:I’m telling people that are in their driveways, “You need to pack up and go or at least be ready to go in just … in an instant.”
Al Letson:Mill City was largely spared but the towns surrounding it were leveled. Every year that we see massive fires like that one the debate picks up over the best ways to keep our forests from going up in smoke. Some argue we need to cut down more trees to prevent fires and plant saplings that will soak up carbon. Others argue our history of logging is the problem. They say we should cut down fewer trees and use fire as a tool to help young forests grow into old ones. Both sides believe their plans would help reverse climate change, even though they have opposite ways of getting there. To really understand this debate, we have to step back 30 years to when this fight over the forests began. The podcast series Timber Wars, produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting is about how the fight over old growth forests and a bird called the Northern Spotted Owl helped turn environmental conflicts into culture wars over how we manage our forests today.

Today, we’re re-airing a show they produced for us from earlier this year. Reporter, Aaron Scott starts the study with a protest that became known as the Easter Massacre.
Aaron Scott:The Pacific Northwest has an image. For many folks, it’s one shaped by episodes of Portlandia, lots of Subarus, brunch lines, and flannel. Also, ’90s grunge music and tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon. But before all that, the Pacific Northwest was a sleepier place. A damp corner of the country, largely outside the national spotlight. It was a region dominated by a single industry, logging.
Stephan Weaver:I started in the timber industry basically out of high school.
Aaron Scott:Stephan Weaver lives in Stayton, Oregon. For a lot of his life, he worked as a tree faller, also called a timber cutter. Basically, it was his job to cut down colossal trees with a chainsaw and shout, “timber.”
Stephan Weaver:You had a lot of pride in what you did. 99% of the timber cutters did. There was that one or two percent that were just there for the buck. Some of the best timber cutters came out of the Detroit Canyon.
Aaron Scott:Detroit Canyon is inside Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. It’s home to some of the biggest and oldest trees in the world. Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock, they can tower 300 feet into the air and stand eight feet wide. They feel like pillars holding up the sky, which is maybe why folks who saw them disappearing felt like the sky was falling.
Stephan Weaver:We really all started with the North Roaring Devil sale.
Aaron Scott:It’s impossible to pin down exactly when the timber wars started because they had a different beginning for everyone involved. For Stephan, it was in 1989 in these forests at a timber sale called the North Roaring Devil.
Stephan Weaver:There were a lot of things that went on up there.
Aaron Scott:Back in March of 1989, Detroit Canyon was blanketed in snow. Still, Stephan’s bosses wanted him in there cutting.
Stephan Weaver:We were snowmobiling in. We’d have to make two or three trips because we didn’t have a dozen snowmobiles but it was just a mess.
Aaron Scott:The US Forest Service makes up names for the various timber sales. The trees Stephan was cutting were part of the sale called the North Roaring Devil and it was controversial. That’s a lot of why he was riding into those woods by snowmobile.
Stephan Weaver:They didn’t want to plow the roads so these other people could walk or drive in.
Aaron Scott:By other people, he means environmentalists. They had been fighting in court to stop the logging of the giant, centuries old trees. Stephan was under pressure to get the job done fast.
Stephan Weaver:Then on Saturday night before Easter, Jim Morgan called me up.
Aaron Scott:Jim Morgan was Stephan’s boss at one of the biggest timber companies in the Canyon and he said, “I need 10 men.”
Stephan Weaver:I need them tomorrow morning, Sunday morning. I said, “It’s Easter, Jim.” He says, “I don’t care, I want 10 cutters in the morning and you’ll be compensated very well for it.”
Aaron Scott:So what was with the rush? Well, there was a court date on Tuesday and there was fear the judge could side with environmentalists and put this logging on hold so the fallers were racing to cut the trees first.
Stephan Weaver:As much as was on the ground it was kind of a done deal.
Aaron Scott:On Easter morning, Stephan and his crew got up before dawn, piled into their trucks pulling snowmobiles, and headed into the woods where they were met with a surprise.
Speaker 7:Logging crews arrived at 5:30 this morning to find 30 protestors who sealed off the entrance to the site.
Aaron Scott:The protestors were standing shoulder to shoulder across the road and holding signs stating, “Save our old growth” and “Earth first.” The loggers stopped and discovered the media was there too.
Speaker 7:This morning, a confrontation seemed possible but both sides chose to talk about the issues rather than fight over them.
Speaker 8:You know, I think this is [crosstalk] … Yeah, this argument is-
Speaker 9:Well, I don’t think anything’s productive. You think this is being productive?
Speaker 8:You guys [crosstalk]-
Speaker 9:I got a crew of men I’m paying [crosstalk] to be productive.
Aaron Scott:In the news footage, you can see Stephan standing in the group of loggers and he looks annoyed.
Speaker 9:Industrial insurance.
Stephan Weaver:We could talk to them and they could talk to us but our views were dramatically different about the situation so at that time there wasn’t any middle ground. They just didn’t want that timber cut. They didn’t want any timber cut.
Aaron Scott:Stephan and the loggers had been hired to cut the trees but they weren’t the protestors real target. That was the logging company that bought the timber and the US Forest Service, which made the sale. Many people today might think the Forest Service is all about taking care of forests but its main job at the time, particularly in the Northwest, was selling trees to the highest bidder. For most of the 20th century, foresters and the government viewed trees as crops. The plan was to harvest the last of these ancient giants and replant them with saplings. But for protestors, these trees had a completely different value.
Catia Juliana:I drove here in ’85 and all I knew about Oregon was that there were lumberjacks and big trees so I stopped and fell in love with it and never left.
Aaron Scott:Catia Juliana moved to Eugene for college. The city was a hotbed for liberal activism. The day before Easter, she went to a nonviolence training and just as it was ending someone rushed in and said they needed people to protect some ancient trees so Catia volunteered.
Catia Juliana:We arrived about midnight and it was full on stuff was happening. There was people with walkie talkies greeting us.
Aaron Scott:Activists had been fighting for years to stop logging in this area. It included groves of ancient trees that were so beautiful folks thought of them in sacred terms, referring to them as cathedral forests. They were willing to put their lives on the line to protect them because scientists had started to establish what many nature lovers already felt. These were not just crops. They were complex ecosystems that played vital roles, filtering water and slowing floods and providing essential habitat for 100s of creatures from songbirds to salmon. Trees also reduce greenhouses gases by pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it in their trunks and needles. The biggest 1% of trees store 50% of the forests carbon. But, of course, knowing you want to save the trees is different from knowing how to do it. To Catia, it was overwhelming.
Catia Juliana:One person who stood up and started talking about making a strategic plan to really get some stuff accomplished and it sounded really reasonable so I was like, “I’m just following that guy around” and it ended being Tim.
Aaron Scott:Tim Ingalsbee was a graduate student who worked as a firefighter for the Forest Service in the summer. Not to give away the ending of this story, but he and Catia are now married and he’s with us in their living room. Tim had heard about the logging through friends. He knew that being there was risking his summer job but he couldn’t handle what the clear cuts did the forest.
Tim Ingalsbee:Those were the proverbial moonscapes. It’s just nothing but scorched earth. This is not why I wanted to work for the Forest Service. I wanted to do forest service and this is quite the opposite.
Aaron Scott:So the night before Easter, while Stephan was calling his cutters, Tim was helping lead the resistance. All they had to do was hold off the loggers two or three days until other environmentalists could file an injunction against the timber sale in court.
Tim Ingalsbee:And if they can lay the trees down before the case went to court the judge would moot the case because he might’ve deemed it an illegal timber sale but he can’t order the trees to be stood back up. We called it at the time chainsaw justice.
Aaron Scott:Chainsaw justice meaning the loggers chainsaws got to be judge, jury, and executioner. The protestors stayed up all night, dragging fallen logs and rocks from the forest, and piling them on the road, anything that would slow down the logging trucks and snowmobiles come morning.
Tim Ingalsbee:I was thinking build a wall between the two barriers of cars too. We built these immense barricades and when dawn’s rising you just see the work. Okay, the loggers will never get through that.
Aaron Scott:And the loggers didn’t. They actually went home that first day after talking with the protestors but then the Forest Service showed up with a front end loader. Think bulldozer.
Tim Ingalsbee:And within minutes, smash, the handwork of all of us that did hours to build.
Catia Juliana:When they came in with the machinery I realized I was a little out of my depth and I got very scared so I just ran up the road. I had no idea what I was going to find. What I ended up finding was this man, Leo, in the middle of the logging road trying to bury himself in this pyramid of rocks. He started yelling at me, “Help me, help me.”
Tim Ingalsbee:Buried right up to his neck in a barricade of boulders and that is what held off that front end loader. I mean, the blade came right up to him, intimidated him, but he couldn’t move so he fended them off for the rest of that day.
Speaker 12:You want to be carried out or do you want to walk out.
Aaron Scott:The deputies set to work moving the rocks and pulling Leo out. Deputies arrested him and 12 others on disorderly conduct that day but as word spread, more people arrived to take their place.
Tim Ingalsbee:Similar actions have been taken place all through the ’80s, but in very remote places by just a handful of people. This was at Breitenbush Hot Springs on the doorstep of Portland so there were dozens and dozens of people coming. Hear the news, we’re going to go save the forest.
Aaron Scott:Despite the reinforcements, Tim and Catia still felt like they were up against the unstoppable juggernaut of the timber industry and the federal government.
Catia Juliana:How are we, this little ragged band of individuals with very little resources, how are we going to stop this terrible machine that’s really, in the span of just a few years, taking the very last parts of the forest.
Aaron Scott:The irony of human psychology is that while the environmentalists felt like they were the proverbial David in the fight against Goliath, the local loggers and their families felt that way too. Rightly or wrongly, they saw these scrappy protestors as representatives of big national environmental groups. Groups that were about to put all future timber sales in national forests on hold, all across the Northwest. For the loggers, it was like their very existence was under attack.
Stephan Weaver:All right.
Aaron Scott:All right, Stephan, how are you doing? I wanted to know what was stake in the fight over the forests besides the old growth so I went to see Stephan who was hired to cut the trees.
Stephan Weaver:It’s kind of dirty out here.
Aaron Scott:We start out back at the shed where he stores his chainsaws.
Stephan Weaver:This is pretty much the smallest saws we use.
Aaron Scott:It’s bright orange and the size of what you buy at the hardware store.
Stephan Weaver:32-inch bar. That’s what we use every day and this was-
Aaron Scott:And then he reaches into the back of the shed and he pulls out a big, white mechanical box with two handles. It’s so big I would’ve guessed it was a portable generator but it’s actually the body of his first chainsaw, a McCulloch 125 [crosstalk]. It’s just missing the saw bar or the long steel plate that the chain whips around to cut into the trees.
Stephan Weaver:I could run a 50-inch bar, four foot bar pretty much. I should clean the damn thing up at this-
Aaron Scott:And is that about as big of a bar as were ever used in earlier-
Stephan Weaver:We used some bigger ones, some 60-inch bars occasionally.
Aaron Scott:[crosstalk] Imagine that for a minute. A chainsaw that’s big enough to get on all the rides at Disneyland. How big a tree needs a five foot long chainsaw?
Stephan Weaver:But I’ve got some pictures that I’ll show you of some big trees I’ve dug them out.
Aaron Scott:Stephan takes me back inside and opens a picture album of the trees they cut at the North Roaring Devil sale. The photos show a couple of loggers in helmets and red suspenders standing on top of a fallen log. These things are enormous. He’s standing on a tree that is as tall as … Oh, wait, is that you?
Stephan Weaver:Yeah, that’s me.
Aaron Scott:You’re standing on a tree that is as wide as you are tall.
Stephan Weaver:Oh, yeah, there was some huge timber up there. There was from five to seven, eight foot on the stump.
Aaron Scott:That means eight feet wide at the base. These were the kind of trees Stephan cut all through the ’70’s and the ’80’s. He spent every day in the woods, rain or shine, sick or injured. What did you love about it?
Stephan Weaver:Oh, back then I liked being outdoors. I hunted, I fished, and it was a feeling of freedom out there because you might work for somebody else but when you’re out there working you’re your own boss.
Aaron Scott:You also make good money without needing a college degree.
Stephan Weaver:When I was 23 years old, I was making between 25 and $30,000 a year and, hell, I thought I was really making big money.
Aaron Scott:Timber was the economic lifeblood of all the small towns in the Santiam Canyon and many of the small towns throughout the Northwest. If you didn’t have a job at the mill or in the woods you had a family member or a neighbor who did. Your kids probably played on a baseball team sponsored by the local timber company.
Stephan Weaver:Then it was a good feeling. In the ’70’s and ’80’s, we figured we’re going to do this forever.
Aaron Scott:Stephan planned to log until he retired. He even built up a business that employed nearly 30 cutters but environmentalists wanted to keep Stephan from ever cutting trees again, or at least these ancient ones. So back at the North Roaring Devil sale, when the loggers returned on the second morning, their wives and families came out in support.
Group:Save our loggers! Save our loggers!
Aaron Scott:Their main goal was countering the protestors’ message to the news cameras.
Speaker 14:This our livelihood. This puts food on our tables.
Group:Save our loggers!
Aaron Scott:For both sides, the click was ticking. The judge would decide whether to halt the logging the next day so the question was would there be any trees left standing for him to rule on? The loggers in law enforcement started up the final stretch of plowed road, led by the Forest Service’s front end loader.
Stephan Weaver:We kind of went in in a caravan. All went together because these people were on the sides of the road and up in the hills. This one guy, he jumped up off the side of the road and got right in my face and threw some mud and then spit in my face too. I was mad. I stopped the pickup and Jim Morgan says, “Just sit here. Just take it.” I said, “You just don’t know how hard that is to take.”
Aaron Scott:Meanwhile, Tim knew they couldn’t stop the convoy so he ran up the road into the deeper snow where the loggers would have to continue on snowmobiles.
Tim Ingalsbee:And then, one by one, other people started joining me and we’d say, “Let’s make our stand here.” Right at that moment, we hear the whine of a snowmobile so we just held hands like paper dolls, spread out, crossed the road, and sure enough it was a snowmobile carrying the county sheriff. He was standing up on the back. He jumps off and he says, “You’re all under arrest” and he actually handcuffed us together holding hands. It was the most bizarre moment because you step back and realize, “Oh, there’s one of me and five or six of you and you’re all handcuffed together and still blocking the road.” The sheriffs had been doing all the arrests up to that point and the Forest Service is out of the camera view, staying behind, but that required a bunch of foresters people to … We laid down in the snow and they had to drag us out. To me that was shocking, the lengths that the agency was going to try to preempt the court case. I mean, it was just kind of a mad rush to get those trees cut down.
Aaron Scott:On Tuesday, two days after the protests started, a federal judge heard the environmentalist’s challenge. Like many justices in Oregon, he was widely regarded as sympathetic to the industry so his ruling came as no surprise.
Speaker 15:The federal district judge in Portland, Oregon, today rejected a request by conservationists that he blocked logging on a stand of centuries old trees.
Aaron Scott:Protestors kept trying to slow the logging. They experimented with climbing into the branches and locking themselves around the trunks in a human chain with bike locks but eventually Stephan and the other loggers finished cutting down the remaining trees, which is why environmentalists took to calling it the Easter Massacre. But, unlike the smaller protests that had come before, this time the nation paid attention. The North Roaring Devil sale got covered by likes of Good Morning America, The Today Show, and NPR.
Speaker 16:Loggers and environmentalists in Oregon are locked in a battle over a stand of ancient trees.
Tim Ingalsbee:[crosstalk] That was the first time that these public opinion radically shift. We weren’t a bunch of eco-terrorists in the woods, we were upholding the law, and defending what was irreplaceable.
Catia Juliana:And is really the action that put old growth logging in ancient forests on the map. It really helped form the movement and inform our tactics.
Al Letson:These tactics were just the beginning. Environmentalists had an ace up their sleeve that would prove more powerful than 100 protestors in the woods.
Speaker 17:Environmentalists are accused of turning the Endangered Species Act into a terrorist weapon to kill off the timber industry.
Al Letson:How an owl swooped in to save the trees and reshape the timber industry. That’s ahead on Reveal.
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Al Letson:From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Throughout the ’80’s, environmentalists kept losing. The could slow down logging in old growth forests with protests and lawsuits but, in the end, most of it got cut. There just weren’t that many laws that protected trees but there were laws that protected animals. So with the last old growth forest on the line, a few conservationists got creative. Aaron Scott from the Timber Wars podcast at Oregon Public Broadcasting picks it up from here.
Aaron Scott:Environmentalists like to say there isn’t an endangered ecosystems act but there is an Endangered Species Act so this idea started percolating that they could protect the old growth forests by protecting an animal that needed those forests to survive. Fortunately, for them, scientists had identified one such animal, the Northern Spotted Owl. The timber industry recognized how dangerous this idea was and tried to nip it in the bud so it laid on the pressure with politicians, government agencies, even conservation groups like The National Wildlife Federation.
Andy Stahl:The Weyerhaeuser company had threatened to close all of its lands to hunters and fisherman nationwide so that was somewhat persuasive because The National Wildlife Federation, at that time, was mostly hunters and fisherman.
Aaron Scott:This is Andy Stahl. He worked for The National Wildlife Federation and he was one of the first who wanted to pursue a strategy saving the Northern Spotted Owl but his bosses wanted him to drop it so bad they fired him.
Andy Stahl:They fired me on Friday. They rehired me the following Monday subject to the following constraints. You are to make no outgoing phone calls. You are to sign no correspondence. You are to attend no meetings. We’ll continue to pay you to do nothing at all.
Aaron Scott:The reasons environmentalists were afraid of going after the owl were complicated. First off, they were worried that they’d lose and then they wouldn’t have any leverage, even if it was just the threat of going to court. But, in many ways, winning was an even bigger fear, especially if they used the Endangered Species Act because while the act was passed almost unanimously, the perception was that it was designed to protect big, beloved animals. Bald eagles, blue whales, and things like that. The fear among leading conservationists was that stretching it to apply to things like tiny fish and reclusive birds might get them what they want in the short term, but the backlash could lead to the death of the law.
Andy Stahl:There were concerns that the spotted owl was a bridge too far and that it would bring down the whole Endangered Species Act and environmentalism, writ large, would die.
Aaron Scott:But Andy thought he saw a way to protect the owl without putting a target on the Endangered Species Acts so he went to work for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. We now know it as earth justice and they decided to go straight at the agency that had power over most of the remaining old growth, the US Forest Service. At the time, the Forest Service was saying that you only needed 500 nesting pairs of owls to maintain genetic diversity and each pair needed 1,000 acres, so do the math, and you are only going to protect at most 500,000 acres. That’s just one percent of the forest land around where spotted owls lived and left Andy with a question.
Andy Stahl:What was the basis for saying that 500 pairs of spotted owls were sufficient to maintain a sustainable population?
Aaron Scott:Did I read it was based on a study of fruit flies?
Andy Stahl:Yeah, well, the 500 was. It was remarkable. A government document, a Forest Service document said 500 parentheses personal communication M. Sulay, person’s name, and that was it. That was the authoritative citation for saying 500. I didn’t know who M. Sulay was and this was before Google. I looked around. It turned out it was a guy named Michael Sulay at the University of California at Santa Cruz, so I called him up. I said, “You’ve been cited as the authority behind protecting 500 pairs of spotted owls, which would be a substantial reduction from the current number.” He said, “I have? I never said that.” “Well, what did you say, Michael?” “Well, the Forest Service called me up and we talked a bit and I told them that they should go look at a paper that a colleague of mine wrote in which he studied fruit fly mating in a jar and found that if you have 500 fruit flies they are randomly mating in the jar and that’s a sufficiently large population to prevent a particular bristle hair mutation from becoming fixed in the population and taking over.” Oh, I asked Michael, “What does that have to do with spotted owls?” He said, “Nothing at all. It has nothing to do with spotted owls.”
Aaron Scott:So 500 pairs came from a leap of logic straight out of 8th grade biology. It was junk but Andy could halt logging until he had a better number and no one had done that science. Andy would have to find someone and put them on the case. A cross country search eventually led him to the evolutionary biologist, Russell Lande, in Maine.
Andy Stahl:I remember sitting in a lobster shack on the coast of Maine and Rus says, “I’ve been thinking about your owl question.” He grabs a butter-soaked paper napkin and starts writing formulas on it which is all Greek to me. He says, “You know, this is how I’ll go about solving it” and he starts explaining it to me. It was really quite elegant what he’d done.
Aaron Scott:What Russell Lande had done was build on the math that one of his professors had developed for the farm bureau to help eliminate pests. Basically, his professor had modeled how many bugs you had to kill to wipe out an infestation such that the big population couldn’t recover and recolonize the crop.
Andy Stahl:What Russ did was he took that mathematics and flipped it on its head.
Aaron Scott:But if you ran the numbers in the other direction, you could figure out how many owls you needed to keep alive in order to ensure that they recovered and recolonized the forest. All the variables were basically the same. You needed to know how far an animal will travel to mate, their odds of finding each other, and their reproduction and survival rates. Plug that into the equation and you can figure out how much forest you need to be confident that every time an owl dies, a new one is born.

Lande’s math showed that owls as a whole couldn’t survive in a landscape unless about a quarter of it was mature, old forest. And that meant, if we wanted to keep the owl alive, we’d have to stop cutting old growth almost immediately. In 1989, they filed an injunction against the US Forest Service.
Andy Stahl:I walked up the hill, downtown Seattle, to the Federal District Courthouse, walked into the clerk’s office and presented it to her. She looked at the caption and she said, “Ah, I’ve been expecting this.”
Aaron Scott:This was a complicated lawsuit. On its face, it was about spotted owls but it was really about old growth. But, it was really, really about finding out whether the government was breaking the law or the law itself was broken. The first law in question was the National Environmental Policy Act. Its main requirement is that the government tell the truth and disclose the consequences of its decisions. Team Andy’s contention was that by underplaying the spotted owl’s population requirements, by sticking to the number 500, it wasn’t telling the truth. The other half of the lawsuit was based on another law, the National Forest Management Act.
Andy Stahl:It says, “The plan that you adopt for managing these forests has to protect the survival, the viability, of all native vertebrate species.”
Aaron Scott:The core of their argument hung on just this one sentence but it gave all the power to scientists, not politicians or timber executives, to determine what constitutes a viable population. Basically it meant you can’t knowingly drive an animal to extinction.
Andy Stahl:We said, “Look, these plans don’t do it because spotted owls are no fruit flies.”
Aaron Scott:So what was the ruling?
Andy Stahl:Yeah. The ruling was preliminary injunction granted.
Aaron Scott:The ruling was like a bomb that exploded across the Northwest.
Speaker 20:The US Forest Services stopped all timber sales in 13 national forests in Oregon and Washington. The decision affects nearly five billion board feet of timber.
Aaron Scott:And it wasn’t just one decision. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund also filed lawsuits against The Bureau of Land Management and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. By the time they were done, all three agencies had to step up their owl protections and that meant putting most new timber sales in federal forests on hold.
Al Letson:There used to be a time when old growth forests stretched across parts of the Middle East, Europe and most of the US but people cut them down so long ago that most of us don’t even remember they were there. This was the last chance to save the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, but it came at a cost.
Stephan Weaver:When you go from a logger to flipping hamburgers down at McDonald’s it wasn’t a very good deal.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. If you roll out a map of the Pacific Northwest and put your finger down in any of the national forests, chances are that in the 1980s the nearest small towns depended on timber from that forest. Earlier in the show, we told you about the Eastern Massacre where a strand of old growth trees were cut down in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. If you were to put your finger down there, the biggest nearby town would be Mill City where really the name says it all. So, when it came down to saving old growth forests, and the animals that live in them, and in places like Mill City would pay a price. Here’s Oregon Public Broadcasting Reporter, Aaron Scott, again with a show we originally aired in February.
Aaron Scott:I was told that if you wanted to talk to some of the old timers who logged in the ’80’s, during the end of the old growth bonanza, you should head to the Mountain Café at 5:00 a.m. on a Thursday. [crosstalk] At this hour, the place is empty, except for one table in the corner.
Speaker 22:This is the Romeo club. Retired old man eating out.
Aaron Scott:This week’s meeting of the Romeo club counts two retired loggers, one retired mill manager, one retired butcher, and two retired government foresters. The group is sitting around a big circular table, waiting for their food and true to form there’s a lot of flannel and suspenders to go around. How long have you guys been meeting here on Thursdays?
Speaker 22:10 years.
Speaker 23:Oh, yeah. There’s really more now.
Speaker 22:There’s been a coffee shop discussion table since I moved here in ’74 and I know it was going on long before that.
Aaron Scott:But back then, it wasn’t just retired guys. In its heyday, Mill City had a couple cafes like this that would be full of loggers first thing in the morning, stopping in to fill up on coffee and eggs on their way into the woods.
Speaker 22:Everybody was here at least one day a week. Some people here 6:00 or 5:00. It changed.
Aaron Scott:It changed. Now the loggers in the black and white photos hanging on the walls outnumber the ones getting breakfast and that decline began with those first court rulings in 1989. Did it feel like it changed, the forest got locked up overnight, or was it more of a progress?
Speaker 22:It was gradual. It was just instant. As soon as that happened, it was over.
Aaron Scott:An instant isn’t a huge exaggeration. The protests and court rulings over the owl all came within months of each other. It felt like a landslide suddenly crashing down on the community and a PR battle was being waged in the media, one that many folks in timber communities felt like they were losing to a bunch of old trees and scruffy environmentalists. Pro timber groups began to put out pamphlets and press releases and organized rallies in towns up and down the Northwest. If there was a court hearing, they were outside with signs. If there was a political event, they were circling the block with their logging trucks.
Speaker 24:A crowd of over 8,000 people jammed Pioneer Courthouse Square in Downtown Portland for a pro timber rally. Workers from all around the state were given the day off to protest for pros logging cutbacks.
Speaker 25:We’re talking about jobs.
Speaker 26:Right. Okay, but there’s also-
Speaker 25:We’re talking about-
Speaker 26:There’s also the future too.
Speaker 25:… environmentalists-
Speaker 26:Right now, it’s important.
Speaker 25:… having problems with this owl. They’re saying that this owl-
Speaker 26:It is as problem.
Speaker 25:… is a problem. Okay.
Aaron Scott:But it wasn’t just loggers versus environmentalists, rural versus urban, the timber wars started splitting small towns apart too and no one experienced it more than Sherry Gerard.
Sherry Gerard:Then I guess we’ll go in my office.
Aaron Scott:Sherry runs a nonprofit in Mill City that deals with everything from domestic violence to counseling out of work loggers. She comes from a third generation timber family and her husband, Jim Gerard, owns a local grocery store.
Sherry Gerard:He was riding bicycles across the United States with his son for Doernbecher Hospital and somebody went and put out the rumor that he was a part of the eco-terrorists and why would anybody shop his store.
Aaron Scott:Just because he liked bicycle riding?
Sherry Gerard:Just because he liked bicycle riding. That’s something that they do. It was a war. You were either on one side or you were on the other side.
Aaron Scott:So Sherry jumped into action. She printed up T-shirts for the staff that said, “We support the timber industry.” She called the mill owners and reassured them her husband was on their side. She even spoke at a rally about how the community needed to stand together and not turn on each other.
Sherry Gerard:And we finally got it settled.
Aaron Scott:It’s almost mind boggling to me that they would be so focused on even just one business with the idea that, “Oh, you might be sympathetic.”
Sherry Gerard:People were hurting that bad and they were that scared and they were that upset. They were looking for somebody to blame. If anybody wasn’t on our side, then you were definitely the enemy.
Aaron Scott:But one scapegoat rose about everything else, the Northern Spotted Owl. Just as it became the mascot and the legal linchpin for the environmentalists, it became a symbol of everything the logging communities hated and feared.
Speaker 25:I don’t think any of us want to see the spotted owl become extinct but if it’s us or the owl then I don’t care what happens to him.
Aaron Scott:Folks started making bumper stickers and T-shirts that said things like, “Save a logger, eat an owl” and “Spotted owl, tastes like chicken.”
Speaker 28:If you thought it was the 25 cent drafts that brought this crowd to the town tavern this evening, you’re wrong. These loggers came for the spotted owl dinner special.
Aaron Scott:Aren’t you worried you might be eating the last of an endangered species here?
Speaker 25:That is really worrying me [crosstalk] because I’m an endangered species.
Aaron Scott:Of course, the meat really was chicken but remember how some environmentalists didn’t even want to try to list the spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act because they feared it could backfire on the law and it would distract from the fight to protect the ancient forests. Well, it kind of did. The US Fish and Wildlife Service finally listed the Northern Spotted Owl as threatened on June 22, 1990, and the backlash was immediate.
Speaker 29:Environmentalists are accused of turning the Endangered Species Act into a terrorist weapon to kill off the timber industry.
Speaker 30:It’s a disaster. They’re going to shut the mills like this in Oregon and Washington down period.
Speaker 31:It’s nothing more than a glorified barn owl.
Aaron Scott:The irony is that the Endangered Species Act wasn’t really what locked up the old growth to begin with. It was the other, somewhat confusing, environmental laws that Andy Stahl and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund used. But for some reason, everyone has always blamed the Endangered Species Act. Maybe it was the fear that it would also lock up private forests and maybe it’s the fact that instead of playing out in legal briefs and courtrooms, it played out on nightly news and in public hearings as the Reagan and Bush administrations fought against their own scientists and judges in a multi-year tug-of-war over whether or not to list the bird.
Tom Fencl:They had the hearings for the spotted owl thing.
Aaron Scott:Tom Fencl was one of the retired loggers around the table at the Romeo club. I went to see him afterward at his home.
Tom Fencl:Waited in line for two hours to testify. Get in there and look over at the panel. That really made me … Half of them were gone or they were sleeping.
Aaron Scott:Oh, no, because so many people were testifying that-
Tom Fencl:Yeah, there was so many. All day probably a thousand. I don’t know, maybe more than a thousand. When I got up there to testify I said, “Well, you people ought to have a decency to at least wake up and listen” because [inaudible] either be gone or sleeping. Well, that didn’t go over very big but it didn’t change nothing.
Aaron Scott:That sense of not having any say over your own future, that sense of not even being listened to when you’re asking for help, that festers and it grows. In this case, it turned the Endangered Species Act into the poster child for government overreach, a status it holds to this day because never before had the protection of a single animal affected so many people, especially a motley owl that hides in the dank forest like a criminal. The Endangered Species Act became the villain that got all the blame. Just as environmentalists feared, calls to repeal it echoed all the way from cafes in Mill City to The White House.
Speaker 34:I will not sign an extension of the Endangered Species Act unless it gives greater consideration to jobs, to families, and to communities. It is time to make people more important than owls.
Aaron Scott:While conservative politicians have never succeeded in getting rid of the Endangered Species Act, the backlash to it did win one major victory for the timber industry. After being portrayed as the villains cutting down America’s last ancient forest, the logging side managed to flip the script so that they were the underdogs.
Speaker 35:Now owls versus loggers in the Pacific Northwest.
Aaron Scott:As they made their case, both sides were throwing all sorts of numbers around.
Speaker 36:250,000 jobs in the West.
Speaker 37:Environmentalists call these figures by the National Forest Products Association outrageous.
Speaker 38:Exactly how many jobs are at stake is a matter of considerable dispute.
Speaker 39:10 to 15%, that’s all.
Aaron Scott:But it was a lot more complicated than owls versus jobs. The timber industry was already undergoing massive changes that had nothing to do with the owl. An economic recession in the early 1980s, drove a lot of mills out of business and those that survived adopted new technology that resulted in even more layoffs.
Speaker 20:In the 1970s, it took seven mill workers to turn a billion board feet of logs into lumber. In today’s modern computerized mills, the same amount of timber creates two jobs or less.
Aaron Scott:The recession hammered the final nail in the coffin of what had once been thriving timber unions in the Northwest. And then, there was the issue of exports. Timber companies were exporting raw logs overseas, without milling them here first, which meant they were exporting those mill jobs too.
Speaker 40:Some workers, including those who have already lost their jobs say the real problem is in exporting raw logs.
Speaker 41:That is going-
Speaker 42:It’s not a cover up. It’s a cover up.
Speaker 41:Well-
Speaker 42:I lost my job Friday and that’s a cover up. It’s not the owl. [crosstalk] It’s not the owl.
Speaker 41:I’ll tell you what-
Speaker 42:Don’t tell me about those-
Speaker 41:It is real.
Aaron Scott:Over the course of the ’80’s, even before the owl, timber jobs that had once paid a premium turned into average waged jobs. These were just like the changes that were reshaping other industries like farming, mining, and manufacturing but there’s one big difference. The timber industry was able to pin most of its problems on the spotted owl and environmentalists because the owl did hurt the industry. After the government came up with a plan to protect the spotted owl and other old growth dependent species, logging in federal forests dropped by more than 80%.
Stephan Weaver:It decimated a lot of communities.
Aaron Scott:This is Stephan Weaver again, the logger we met at the beginning of the hour.
Stephan Weaver:It was real bad. It was bad on me. I mean, I went from, let’s say, just having a good job to no job for a while but I picked myself up and … Well, I didn’t. I was really mad at the world. In the late ’90’s era, I kind of hated everybody that didn’t like the trees to be cut. When you go from being a logger that makes $40,000 a year maybe back then 50, to flipping hamburgers down at McDonald’s, it wasn’t a very good deal.
Aaron Scott:Whether it was a good deal or not, depends largely on where you call home. Today, a third of timber towns are economically worse off but a third have stayed the same in part because there’s still a massive amount of logging happening on private land. Another third are better off than before because they have managed to play off the beauty of the national forests around them to attract tourism, recreation, and new businesses. As for the timber wars, they didn’t end, they just evolved. Now, instead of fighting over just old growth forests, we’re fighting over all the forests because they plan a huge role in combating climate change. Forests absorb and store carbon. They regulate and filter drinking water. Many of the animals that depend on them, like the spotted owl, are even more threatened than ever. So now, environmentalists want to protect all publicly-owned forests, not just the old ones but we’re also fighting over them because they’re burning. One side thinks to make things better we should be cutting more trees and putting out fires. The other side thinks logging and suppressing the fires that historically burned these forests has made things worse.

The timber industry and environmentalists are still operating with two completely different worldviews. That old saying, “You can’t see the forests for the trees.” Well, here, the fight feels even more basic. The two sides can’t even agree on what a forest is or what it’s for or, most importantly, what’s our role in it. After decades of fighting, the battles lines are the same but the stakes are even higher.
Al Letson:In January, days before leaving office, the Trump administration slashed protections for the Northern Spotted Owl, reclassifying nearly 3-1/2 million acres of land designated as critical habit but that move is on hold while the Biden administration reviews the ruling. Today’s show came to us from the podcast Timber Wars. It’s from Oregon Public Broadcasting and it explores so much more about the wonders of the forest and the consequences of this battle. You can find Timber Wars wherever you get your podcasts. It will change the way you see forests.

This episode was reported by Aaron Scott and produced by Aaron, Peter Frick-Right, and Robby Carville. David Steves, Ed [Yaun] and Brett Myers edited the show. Fact checking by Matt Giles. For archival audio, thanks to NPR and the KEZI TV Chambers Communication Cooperation Collection at the University of Oregon Libraries. Special thanks to NPR Story Lab. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counselor.

Our production manager is Amy Mostafa. Laura, my favorite Gibson, composed the music for today’s show. Sound design by Robby Carver and audio engineering by Steven Cray, along with J. Breezy. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson and, remember, there is always more to the story.
Speaker 43:From PRX.

Brett Myers is a senior radio editor for Reveal. His work has received more than 20 national honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award, four nationalEdward R. Murrow Awards and multipleThird Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Competition awards. Before joining Reveal, he was a senior producer at Youth Radio, where he collaborated with teenage reporters to file stories for "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Marketplace." 

Prior to becoming an audio producer, Myers trained as a documentary photographer and was named one of the 25 best American photographers under the age of 25. He loves bikes, California and his family. Before that, he was an independent radio producer and worked with StoryCorps, Sound Portraits and The Kitchen Sisters. Myers is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Brett Simpson (she/her) is an assistant producer for Reveal. She is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where she focuses on audio, print and investigative reporting. She has received fellowships from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents’ Association and the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center. She is also the graduate researcher at UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program. Most recently, Simpson reported breaking news for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered the coronavirus outbreak in the San Francisco Bay Area for The New York Times. She received a bachelor's degree in English at Princeton University, where she twice won the Ferris Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Projects in Journalism. Simpson is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Najib Aminy is a producer for Reveal. Previously, he was an editor at Flipboard, a news aggregation startup, and helped guide the company’s editorial and curation practices and policies. Before that, he spent time reporting for newspapers such as Newsday and The Indianapolis Star. He is the host and producer of an independent podcast, "Some Noise," which is based out of Oakland, California, and was featured by Apple, The Guardian and The Paris Review. He is a lifelong New York Knicks fan, has a soon-to-be-named kitten and is a product of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Aminy is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is the sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the scoring, recording, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He co-founded a film scoring boutique called Manhattan Composers Collective and worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio geared toward media and ad spots. Arruda worked with clients such as Marvel and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck + Company, Buck and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles such as Krychek, Dark Inc., the New York Arabic Orchestra and Art&Sax. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker.” Arruda has scored extensively for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which have premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. Arruda is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.