No 1 in an ongoing series about the Northern Spotted Owl: Did Politics Doom The Northern Spotted Owl? It's time to modernize the Endangered Species Act
Bob Zybach - more formally Bob Zybach PhD - has been a friend and colleague for nearly 20 years. He appeared on the cover of Evergreen Magazine in 1994 in a question and answer interview in which we raised serious questions concerning the veracity of the science that formed the highly suspect basis of the federal government's June 1990 decision to list the northern spotted owl as a threatened species under the aegis of the 1973Endangered Species Act, easily the most misused and abused statute ever ratified by Congress.
Zybach is back in the news - big time - with a brilliantly written essay that appears in this month's edition of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Journal. It is easily one of the most interesting and informative articles I've ever read concerning the spotted owl and government's fraudulent and deceitful listing decision. These are my words, notZybach's. As a first-rate scientist, he would never say anything like this, even if he knew it to be true.
Zybach was an undergraduate forestry student at Oregon State University when we met in the spring of 1994. He had been a reforestation contractor in western Oregon for 20 years before deciding to go back to school. I tracked him down in Corvallis after learning from a forester friend that he had found some interesting anecdotal evidence - diaries, old photographs, maps and early timber cruises - suggesting that the Pacific Northwest's Douglas-fir forests were never the "vast sea of old growth" that government scientists and their environmentalist cohorts alleged in the years leading to the 1990 listing.
Frankly, I never expected what I found. The living and dining areas in the small house Zybach had rented were stacked high with boxes and his dining room table was covered with maps. You could not walk across the room without walking around boxes.
When I asked Zybach how he had uncovered so much evidence that the government's scientists had missed [some insisted it didn't exist] he quipped, "Oh, that's easy, I have a library card." And, indeed, the boxes of research material that were stacked all over Zybach's living room had come from public libraries. Government scientists had whistled past dozens of government-funded reports because they made a mockery of their claim that the spotted owl was headed for extinction if logging was not halted in federally-owned old growth forests in Oregon, Washington and northern California.
Zybach's off-hand remark branded him a pariah among "how-dare-you" government scientists who to this day - 23 years after the listing - continue to whore at the federal trough where "research" dollars are handed out to a politically favored few who continue to try to prove the connection between logging and a still precipitous decline in spotted owl populations. Never mind that we've never had reliable owl counts as a baseline, or that logging came to a standstill in owl habitat more than 20 years ago, or that owls are frequently found nesting and breeding in 30-year-old forest plantations that have been the subject of withering environmentalist criticism for decades. In the late1980s I heard a Forest Service biologist say with an absolutely straight face that he thought there was "something wrong with those owls." Such was the mindless catechism that still grips most of the wildlife biology community.
Zybach's revelation that he had found such a treasure trove of information in public libraries also made him a cult hero among thousands of people whose careers, families and communities were devastated by the government's purely political decision to list the own. It has long been my opinion that to believe there was a scientific basis for the listing is to also believe that the 9/11/01 collapse of the World Trade Center was the architect's fault, and that Neil Armstrong did not step foot on our moon's surface on July 20, 1969. It was all staged in a Hollywood studio.
After Zybach completed his PhD, which several scientists attempted to sabotage because he had embarrassed them publicly, Zybach turned his attention to a comprehensive and widely acclaimed study of the history of wildfire in western Oregon. Few people realize the significant role Indians have played in shaping forests they routinely burned to create wildlife habitat, keep travel routes open and maintain defensible space around their encampments.
For reasons that veer close to racism, the Indian role in landscape management was for years dismissed out of hand by scientists who were drawn to the "sea of old growth" myth because it comported nicely with their belief that nature existed in steady state of perfect balance, an idea that seems laughable today but was all the rage for many years. No wonder public understanding is in such short supply.
Zybach's Journal essay is timely given the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's announced intention to start shooting predatory barred owls. This is the "dog ate my homework" excuse that follows the agency's realization that it has run its string with the "loggers are killing owls" excuse. What we have here is a federal agency that is been caught in its own filthy lies. If we are going to shoot barred owls because they are presumably devouring spotted owls, let us first start shooting wolves because we have well documented evidence that they are decimating the West's elk herds.
But before we do anything stupid, let us at least consider the distinct possibility that barred owls - which frequently interbreed with spotted owls - may well be the key to the survival of what spotted owls we have left. Failing that, let's do what my birder friend, Jim O'Donnell, suggested to me last year. Let's erect nesting platforms for barred owls, then replace their eggs, with spotted owl eggs and let the barred owls raise succeeding generations of spotted owls.
Meantime, let's get busy with Zybach's suggestion that the original and succeeding spotted owl habitat management plans be subjected to independent, third party peer review. There isn't a chance in hell that the phony science we've lived with in the Pacific Northwest since the late 1980swill pass muster. Begin with the fact that the government's anointed scientists - those who trumped up the "research" leading to the owl listing - shredded much of their daily work product. Why? What were they hiding from public scrutiny?
It is long past time to lift the veil of secrecy that descended on this Great Hoax more than 23 years ago. It was a scientifically baseless decision that has had a terribly negative impact on the region's federal forests, especially early succession plants, birds, animals and tree species. Moreover, it has cost state and federal taxpayers billions of dollars, and will cost billions more if it is not now subjected to a full-blown and publicly televised congressional investigation.
Click here to read Zybach: Spotted Owls
More Zybach owl reading here.
Additional reading at "The Best of Evergreen":
Evergreen, March-April 1994: Bob Zybach - Voices in the Forest
Evergreen, November 2012: Alan Moghissi - Fresh Air: Rocking Capitol Hill and the EPA
Evergreen, Winter 2006-2007: The Donato-Law Fiasco - Mixing Politics and Science
Evergreen, Mid-spring 2006: Eastern Oregon's Forests and Communities are in a Death Spiral
Evergreen, Spring 2006: Did Politics Doom the Northern Spotted Owl
Evergreen, July, 2004 - Siskiyou Showdown
Additional reading at Evergreen's "Speeches":
Does the logging industry have a future in the Intermountain West?
Is it time to give our federal forests back to the Indians?
The American revolution is still going on
Gifford Pinchot is rolling over in his grave
No mill, no market, no forest