(Not So) Still Life with Owls:
From the Oregon Hills to Capitol Hill, a Forester Looks Back

By Ed Shepard

As I reflect on my journey across four decades with the BLM, I’m reminded of John Steinbeck’s classic American travelogue, “Travels with Charley.”  My journey is more like “Travels with Owly” because, without a doubt, nothing has impacted the management of forests in western Oregon more than the discovery of a small 23-ounce critter known as the northern spotted owl.  Whether I was working in Oregon or Washington, DC, we found ourselves striving to unite diverse parties on plans that balanced healthy habitat for wildlife with the needs of local communities.

I first came to Oregon in 1981 when its BLM-managed western forests—referred to as “O&C lands” due to their establishment under the Oregon and California Lands Act of 1937—were still managed under first-generation plans.  These 2.5 million acres of forested lands had been set aside for permanent timber production, watershed and stream protection, and recreation sites. 

Photo of a Northern Spotted Owl in Oregon.  (FWS)
A northern spotted owl in Oregon.  (FWS)
Early in my career, the BLM tracked owls via spotted owl management areas—largely by protecting a network of nesting sites.  As the northern spotted owl issue became more prevalent, some conservation groups used it as a means to challenge the harvest of old growth timber.  And in 1987, the BLM lost its first owl-related lawsuit and was temporarily enjoined from cutting timber that was more than 200 years old.

Lawsuits over the owls continued into the next decade.  I moved to Washington, DC, to serve as the O&C program coordinator in the BLM’s Division of Forestry.  It was a tumultuous, yet exciting, time.  Timber harvest levels fluctuated for both the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM, each riding waves of numerous lawsuits and injunctions.  On several occasions, debates on owls and forests became so intense that congressional action was required to maintain federal timber operations. 

Following years of debate, in 1989, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan and Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter charged their agencies to find a scientifically sound solution to both protect the owl and provide for stable timber sources.  I returned to Oregon, and along with representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service, was assigned to write the charter for an interagency science committee that would develop a plan.

By 1992, the need for a workable plan was more critical than ever, and during a campaign stop in Oregon, Presidential candidate Bill Clinton pledged his leadership to resolve this issue.  After his election, he held a summit in Portland that brought together Vice President Al Gore, the Cabinet, and stakeholders from all sides of the issue.  The participants agreed to find a credible and legally responsible solution. 

This summit led to the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP), the first plan in the nation to take an ecosystemwide approach across 25 million acres of federal forest, from the Canadian border to northern California.  The O&C lands comprised about 10 percent of this area.  The NWFP was litigated by the timber industry and environmentalists alike and found to be legally sufficient by the courts.

In 1995, I became the Coos Bay district manager.  The NWFP was to be implemented that year, but, due to continuing litigation, its economic promises went unfulfilled.  Rural western Oregon continued to lose mills and jobs, and the counties relied on temporary safety nets passed by Congress to provide for public services.

In 2000, I became the deputy state director in Oregon.  The NWFP was still not allowed to fulfill its mission, and so I found myself back in Washington, DC, serving as a technical advisor on a team to negotiate a settlement to this lingering litigation.  Our resulting agreement was to develop a workable plan by December 31, 2008. 

The Oregon State Office immediately initiated the Western Oregon Plan Revisions (WOPR), and I began a 4-year assignment as the assistant director for planning and resources.  In 2006, I returned to Oregon as the state director and oversaw the completion of the WOPR.  Our scientific approach included conservation measures for the northern spotted owl and other forest values while increasing opportunities for jobs in the timber industry and receipts for the 18 O&C counties.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these plans were met with litigation and withdrawn by the Secretary of the Interior, only to be reinstated by the court, and then litigated again.  Legal action continues today, but for as long as different values are held about these lands, the BLM is poised to work with all stakeholders and scientists to reach a long-term resolution.  This process demonstrates how our democratic principles ensure that all sides are heard.

The adage “may you live in interesting times” certainly holds true for my career.  I’ve been rewarded with the opportunity to work for more than 30 years on O&C forest management issues alongside some of the best professional resource managers our nation has to offer.  And I know, with the help of the American public, we will resolve our needs to protect wildlife while providing for healthy forests and communities in the future.

Ed Shepard has been the state director for Oregon and Washington since 2006.  He started with the BLM in 1974, serving in Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, DC, as a soil scientist, forester, fire manager, and in several other management positions.  He was also a congressional fellow for Oregon Congressman Bob Smith.