On March 7, 1991, U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer blocked logging of all old-growth trees on national forests in the Pacific Northwest that were habitat for the northern spotted owl to protect the animal. Ruling in favor of the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Dwyer declared the U.S. Forest Service’s 1986 Forest Management Plan as inadequate to protect the owl. The Forest Service was ordered to halt more than 75 percent of its planned timber sales until the agency developed a final plan to protect the threatened species. The spotted owl was emblematic of a larger, very complex debate over the management of what is commonly called old-growth timber. The debate was very heated — lives were threatened over the potential loss of timber jobs in the Pacific Northwest as tempers boiled over.
You can learn more about the northern spotted owl controversy through our U.S. Forest Service History pages. The controversy has generated lots of documents, articles, and books. In our U.S. Forest Service History Collection database alone we have 123 listings under the key words “spotted owl,” and several dozen more listings in our Environmental History Bibliography. Many of the items listed in the databases are housed here at FHS. Among the documents are some political cartoons like the one below. While this cartoon does a great job of explaining who the parties involved in the controversy were, it also shows how oversimplified the debate had become.
Newspapers often described it in even simpler terms: owls vs. jobs.
But perhaps our favorite item is an artifact manufactured by the Gag Foods Company at the height of the controversy in the early 1990s. It’s a box parodying Hamburger Helper and Tuna Helper that riffed on the controversy. The company promised to donate profits from the sale of the item to both environmental and logging groups. A search online revealed that a lawsuit filed by General Mills alleging copyright infringement of the product names and package designs of their two products forced the end of production of this joke.
FHS acquired this gag product when our previous president, Pete Steen, picked it up on travel in the Pacific Northwest. Spotted Owl Helper provides a unique take on a controversial historical issue, and is now preserved as one of the physical articfacts in our library collections.