"[I]n several instances we have found them as much as 36 feet in the girth or 12 feet in diameter perfectly solid and entire. they frequently rise to the hight of 230 feet, and one hundred and twenty or 30 of that hight without a limb."
-Meriwether Lewis on Sitka spruce
In the shadows of the enormous Sitka spruce and Douglas fir along the Pacific coast, Lewis spent the winter of 1806 describing plants and animals in his journal, touching on everything from squirrel-tail grass to the candlefish. Swooping above, but still under the trees' high canopy, a small, quiet bird went unrecorded. Two centuries later, the northern spotted owl would enter the spotlight, linked to the preservation of old-growth forests like the one surrounding Fort Clatsop.
The decline of the northern spotted owl has become a symbol of the loss of the ancient forests. Listed as a threatened species in 1990, the owl's fate is tied to that of its old-growth habitat-Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and redwoods-an environment that, as Lewis noted, shelters a wealth of other species as well. As much as 90 percent of the Pacific Northwest's old-growth forests have been logged or otherwise destroyed.
In 1993, the U.S. Forest Service put into place the Northwest Forest Plan, the culmination of a series of lawsuits challenging the aggressive logging that was stripping the Pacific Northwest of its old-growth forests. The plan reduced the rate of logging on 13 national forests in the western parts of Washington, Oregon, and California by about 85 percent; set up late succession reserves allowing regrowth (this benefited spotted owls, marbled murrelets, and other old-growth-dependent species); and established a forest-management program that requires a wildlife survey before each new timber sale.
This creative solution has slowed the rate of old-growth loss, but timber companies are looking to undermine these protections both by delisting the spotted owl and by dropping the survey and management requirements of the Northwest Forest Plan. Protecting the Pacific Northwest's old growth from these attacks will help build northern spotted owl populations back from the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 pairs that remain.