“We are seeing the evolution of the land-use ethic….It’s a mind-boggling change in scale. We have a tendency to know a hell of a lot about individual species and very little about how they fit into an overall picture….This is a relatively recent discovery: that the world doesn’t come one thing at a time.”

These words are from a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist named Jack Ward Thomas. Three years ago Thomas headed a committee of scientists that took an exhaustive look at the status of the spotted owl in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Their conclusion: that preserving the species would require protection for at least 7.1 million acres of habitat of which 3.1 million were timberland designated for cutting.

He is quoted in an excellent book called The Final Forest, written by William Dietrich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer with the Seattle Times. The Final Forest lays out the complex controversy over logging in Washington, Oregon, and northern California with great clarity, and puts faces on many of the actors in the drama that has unfolded there over the past couple of decades.

Dietrich focuses particularly on Forks, Washington, the self-described “logging capital of the world,” a little town in the rainy lands at the western edge of the Olympic Peninsula. The people of Forks have been hit hard by the restrictions put on logging in the Olympic National Forest, and they are angry at and baffled by what they see as an attack on their way of life.

Loggers have always thought of themselves as heroes. Cutting timber ranks up there with coal mining as the most dangerous occupation in America. Everybody in Forks has stories of family or friends who were killed in the woods, and many can reel off a whole list of names. Loggers calculate that there is one chance in three that they will be killed or seriously injured in the course of a working life in the woods.

The daily heroism of the loggers is essential to our way of life. Most of the nation is housed in buildings with wood frames. We sit on wooden chairs, eat on wooden tables, read books, magazines, and newspapers made of wood pulp. If those crazy environmentalists are going to stop logging to save an owl, one exasperated logger told Dietrich, “let them try wiping their asses with a bunch of feathers.”

The story of the spotted owl as the nemesis of loggers began in 1973. As Dietrich tells it, in the summer of that year a young Oregon State biology student named Eric Forsman got a job at a back-country fire-watch station in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. One evening he heard a strange sound. At first he thought it might be a dog, but after listening a bit more he realized it was an owl. He imitated the call, and the owl responded by flying up and landing right in front of him.

At the time, almost nothing was known about Strix occidentalis. Only 26 observations had ever been recorded in Washington and Oregon, and no one had ever seen a nest. Forsman, who had a special interest in owls, was wildly excited and very much intrigued by the discovery that the birds would respond to an imitation of their call.

That evening in the Willamette marked the beginning of years of research by Forsman and others. It was hard work, as hard, if not as dangerous, as logging. The “pellet counters,” as they called themselves (owls usually swallow their prey whole and regurgitate undigestible parts like fur and bones in cohesive little pellets), had to spend their nights prowling the woods. They called owls. They baited owls by putting out mice. They tried to follow owls, running like hell through the dark woods to track the birds to their nests. They got rained on and snowed on and scratched and scraped. They had close encounters with cougars.

And they learned that spotted owls build their nests in the tops of tall snags. That they have a very low level of reproductive success. That they often move to low elevations in the winter after nesting at higher altitudes. And–most significantly–that they can almost never be found outside of old-growth forest. The spotted owl is an indicator species, an animal whose presence declares that a place is an old-growth forest.

Other researchers were looking at many other aspects of the northwest’s ancient forests. Foresters considered these woods decadent. The trees were “over-mature,” headed for rot and death; you were doing them a favor by cutting them down. The biologists presented a different picture. They found tree voles that lived their whole lives in the canopy. They found mosses suspended from branches in the crowns of trees that served the trees that supported them by taking nitrogen from the air and making it available to the tree.

The ancient forests had been called biological deserts because of the absence of big animals. But biologists found 150 species of mammals living in them. About 100 different vertebrates seemed to be totally dependent on old-growth woods.

Meanwhile, all sorts of nasty things were happening to the forests of the northwest. The 70s were boom years in the woods. You could get a job on a logging crew in Forks just by standing on the street early in the morning and waiting for somebody to come by and make an offer. The boom was fed by a combination of chicanery, stupidity, ignorance, mindless optimism, and greed.

For example, the state of Washington owned a huge piece of ground on the Olympic Peninsula called the Clearwater Block, a place Dietrich describes as “one of the biggest, densest, most untapped forests of old growth left in the state.” Trees do grow big on the Olympic Peninsula. On land that receives 120 inches of rainfall a year–about three times as much as we get in Chicago–annual rings can measure two inches across and the giants of the ancient forests can grow 300 feet tall and measure more than 20 feet in diameter.

Washington law says state forests must be logged on a sustained-yield basis. So the state averaged the harvest for all its lands, using unharvested stunted pines on the dry slopes of the eastern Cascades to justify the wanton cutting of the Clearwater Block. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service was setting totally unrealistic cut levels for its lands, allowing the harvesting of far more trees than could be justified ecologically.

Private industry jumped into the game in the 80s. Companies holding large amounts of timberland were attractive targets for leveraged buy-outs. You buy the company with junk bonds, cut the timber, and use the proceeds to pay off the debt. In 1985 the British raider Sir James Goldsmith bought Crown Zellerbach. He paid for the company by selling its pulp mills and 257,000 acres of timber. He kept 700,000 acres of trees and immediately began cutting them. He denuded the Pysht River basin on the Olympic Peninsula, creating landslides that fouled the salmon streams on the watershed. The river carried so much silt that offshore kelp beds were damaged. In 1990, after cutting all his salable trees, he sold the land to another British company.

Similar things were happening on land owned by Scott Paper, Georgia Pacific, and the Burlington Northern railroad. The debt created by corporate takeovers and the need to sell off assets in order to avoid takeover bids were driving decisions, stimulating actions that were totally contrary to anybody’s definition of sound forestry or good stewardship. The next time somebody tells you that the free market can protect the environment, you might mention the Goldsmith episode.

The outcome of all this piracy was a major reduction in the available old-growth forest. The action moved to the managed, second-growth stands of the timber companies, places that grew a lot of timber but had nowhere near the diversity of plant and animal life of the natural forests. Because the smaller, more uniform tree-farm trees were easier to handle with mechanized equipment, Washington and Oregon lost 30,000 logging jobs–18 percent of the industry’s work force–to mechanization between 1979 and 1989.

So the spotted owl hit an industry that was already reeling. The states had already cut almost all their old growth. The U.S. Forest Service had reasons other than the spotted owl to revise its cut to more realistic levels. And many of the big timber corporations had no more trees to cut. Add it all up–decades of overcutting, mechanization reducing the need for labor, the recent ban on the sale of raw logs to Japan, and the recession of the past two years–and you have a recipe for substantial unemployment. Of the 40,000 jobs the Forest Service estimated would be lost due to these factors, only 7,000 could be blamed on the creation of protected reserves for the spotted owl.

Dietrich does an excellent job of describing the growing momentum for protection of the last of the old-growth forests. Most of the effort came from grass-roots groups. The national organizations–Audubon, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society–got into the game only after the locals had brought the issue to national attention.

Dietrich also chronicles the frantic wriggling of the Bush administration to delay consideration of the spotted owl issue. The federal judge who ultimately issued the injunction barring logging until a plan for protection of the spotted owl had been developed referred to the administration’s record as “a remarkable series of violations of the environmental laws.”

The one weakness in The Final Forest is Dietrich’s failure to delineate the structure of the industry. The loggers and the environmentalists are rendered vividly, but “big timber” tends to vanish in a cloud of lawyers. One sentence mentions the long history of bitter strikes and other labor strife, but another dismisses the whole effort of Redwood Summer, a campaign to call attention to logging jobs lost because of the policies of the forest-products companies. We get to know many people who might lose their jobs to the owl, but we don’t encounter any of the 30,000 who lost their jobs to mechanization.

Dietrich considers the forest battle significant because it represents the first time that science has dictated the rules to industry, or at least the first time in a case where human health was not directly involved. He describes the experiments in “new forestry,” which is an attempt to make forestry practices imitate natural processes. The ultimate goal of such experiments, as Jack Ward Thomas sees it, is to stop “designating individual parks or wildernesses or endangered species,” and instead to recognize “entire ecosystems and [figure] out how human society can coexist with them.”