Lately the newspapers have been full of stories about how the spotted owl is going to turn the Pacific Northwest into a land of ghost towns while forcing people in the rest of the country to live under bridges or in old refrigerator cartons. The problem, according to the stories, is that a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and other groups caused a federal judge to block logging on millions of acres of federally owned old-growth forests in Oregon, Washington, and northern California.

The suit was brought under the Endangered Species Act, a law that requires the federal government to act to prevent the extinction of species of animals or plants. The plaintiffs charged that the continued logging of old-growth forests was eradicating habitat that is essential to the survival of the owl.

The timber industry claimed that stopping the cutting would destroy the local economy, that as many as 100,000 jobs would be lost. The stories that have run recently focused on price increases for lumber and tended to support the timber industry’s claim that these increases were created by a shortage of logs–a shortage produced by the cessation of logging on federal lands.

The situation became defined as owls versus people, of hungry, homeless humans sacrificed for the welfare of an obscure bird. There were calls for changes in the Endangered Species Act, changes that would make it possible to exterminate any species that stood in the way of somebody making a profit. The act often takes a lot of heat because it is an environmental law that works: it actually protects species even when powerful interests are arrayed against them, and it recognizes that we cannot long continue economic activities that obliterate nature without risking the obliteration of humanity.

But is the situation really the way the timber industry portrays it? Are all those jobs really being sacrificed to the owl? Are housing costs going to rise to the point where a noticeable number of people are prevented from owning or renting decent housing? There is good reason to believe that the answer to all these questions is no.

To understand why, we need to take a look at some history. Two hundred years ago the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest, forests dominated by such species as the Douglas fir, stretched from northern California to southeastern Alaska. Logging began in the 19th century, and by the end of World War II the most easily accessible trees, most of them on privately owned land, had been cut.

Most of the remaining forests were on public land, and beginning in the 50s they were attacked. Clear-cutting, the favored logging method, has eliminated 90 percent of the original forest. The 10 percent that remains is so fragmented that it can barely function as an ecosystem.

In keeping with a Reagan administration decision to seek a final solution to the problem of old-growth forests by ignoring legal requirements that cutting be conducted on a sustained-yield basis, logging during the 80s was actually increased. If that level of cutting were continued, the last old trees would be cut within 30 to 50 years, but the old-growth forests would be extinct as an ecosystem within 5 to 15 years.

We know about extinct ecosystems here in Illinois. The Prairie State’s prairies are a prime example. We have a few scattered fragments of virgin prairie left. They do provide a refuge for many rare plants and animals, but they are woefully incomplete systems, far too small to support the larger native animals. The fragments are also too widely separated for animals or plant seeds to migrate from one to another, so there is no way for Franklin’s ground squirrels or prairie white-fringed orchids on one remnant to reach other remnants and colonize suitable habitat. Without active management and expansion of the remnants, many of the species they contain will go extinct soon.

The spotted owl case is really about stopping the cutting before the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest reach the point where they are as nonfunctional as the prairie remnants of Illinois. The owl is an indicator species, a species totally dependent on old-growth forests, a species that can tell us how the whole ecosystem is doing. The best information we have says that spotted owl populations in the northwest have dropped 80 percent since the big cut began on public lands after World War II.

So the owl–and the woods it calls home–is going. But has the protection granted the owl and the woods by federal courts sent us down the road to economic disaster?

According to Edward Whitelaw, a professor of economics at the University of Oregon who appeared as an expert witness for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in recent litigation in the spotted owl case, the answer is an unequivocal no. “Recent fluctuations, both up and down, in lumber prices are not a function of restrictions on supply. They are entirely caused by changes in demand,” he told me.

We have been in a recession, after all, and it has cut into housing starts all over the country. California, a major market for northwest timber, has been particularly hard hit. Reduced demand cut prices, and now an increase in demand is causing them to go up. There are still more trees that can be cut than there is a market for.

The recession has also played a major role in the job situation. Last year the industry in Oregon alone lost 9,000 jobs. However, during the boom years between 1979 and 1989, when the cutting went far beyond the level of sustained yield, Oregon’s timber industry lost 12,000 to 13,000 jobs. Even in boom times automation and the export of raw logs rather than finished lumber are creating a continuing decline in jobs. Lest we worry too much about this, we should note that Oregon’s economy showed a net gain of 257,000 jobs between ’79 and ’89. There are opportunities for displaced loggers.

Ordinary market forces are playing a part too, as lumber from the northwest faces competition from the mechanized tree farmers of the southeastern U.S. Northwestern loggers have also been receiving a huge public subsidy, since they are cutting timber on public land and paying such low rates for it that the U.S. Forest Service often spends more building access roads to get to the timber than it receives from the sale of the logs.

Does this mean that protecting the old-growth forests will have no effect on jobs or timber prices? No. Whitelaw expects that by the middle of next year there will be some job loss and price increases attributable to cutting restrictions. But if cutting had continued at the rates that existed before the courts put a stop to the destruction of the forests, these losses and the accompanying price increases would have hit us anyway. At worst, protecting the owl will make these changes happen sooner. But as a bonus, we will still have the old-growth forests and all the thousands of species that live in them.

It may be that the focus of the Endangered Species Act in its present form is too narrow. We might do better if we had an Endangered Ecosystems Act. There are some cases when individual species are threatened even when the ecosystems they live in are reasonably healthy. Poaching nearly did in the American alligator before effective controls were placed on the traffic in hides. With protection from illegal hunting, southern swamps are once again supporting large numbers of gators.

But in most cases endangered animals are endangered because their ecosystems are being destroyed. And if an ecosystem is being destroyed, it is foolish to think that only one species will suffer. The present law is written in a way that forces us to act as if spotted owls were the only issue. It would be sounder ecologically to say that what we are about to lose is an enormous and ancient community, a community that consists of thousands of species of plants and animals living together in a system sustained by complex interactions among those species.

The forests of the Pacific Northwest are the products of millions of years of evolutionary processes, and each example of the forest type took a millennium or more to grow to its present state. The evolutionary processes that give life on earth a history, the processes that turned the single-celled algae of a billion years ago into the multiplicity of forms that have inhabited the earth since the beginning of Cambrian time 600 million years ago, happen only in functioning ecosystems. If we obliterate an ecosystem we also obliterate the possibility of evolution for everything that lives in that ecosystem.

There are two bills currently in the U.S. House of Representatives that would be a start toward thinking in terms of ecosystems. HR 1590, introduced by Congressman Bruce Vento of Minnesota, calls for the establishment of a 6.3-million-acre Ancient Forest Reserve System in the northwest. It also mandates the establishment of an ancient-forest research program and a program to experiment with logging techniques that would not destroy the forest. As an aid to the logging towns, it would offer economic assistance and retraining for communities and individuals. Another bill, HR 842, introduced by Congressman James Jontz of Indiana, would create a large reserve that would include parts of northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, though it would not provide economic assistance.

If we start thinking in terms of ecosystems instead of individual species, we will have a better chance of maintaining ourselves without destroying the rest of nature, and we will have a clearer sense of what is at stake in the Pacific Northwest and in similar situations all over the world.