The Owl and the Chainsaw


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The Northern spotted owl is an introverted creature. Its chestnut-brown plumage spattered with white ovals, eyes like giant black marbles, the spotted owl leaves its nest only to prowl the ancient forest for flying squirrels, woodrats and the occasional lizard. One pair of spotted owls will often claim a 2,000-acre swath of old-growth forest as their own. The owls know no natural predators-so they have no fear of man.

But starting in the late 1980s, any mention of this reclusive bird had Oregon's loggers quaking in their Chippewa boots-or revving up their chainsaws. Within five years, the spotted owl would help saw the state's logging industry in half.

The 1980s were boom times for Big Timber. Lumber hauls were limited only by manpower and daylight. The feds managed public lands like huge tree plantations, granting timber companies virtually unfettered access. Loggers clearcut 70,000 acres of primeval forests per year, leaving behind blackened fallout zones.

The harvests drew truckloads of cash, but they also sent the forest ecosystem into a tailspin.

"The spotted owl was like the canary in the coal mine," says Ivan Maluski of the Oregon Sierra Club. "It was really symbolic of an ecosystem on the verge of collapse."

With the spotted owl's ranks dwindling, the feds had to intervene. In March 1989, federal Judge William Dwyer issued a preemptive order in Seattle that blocked all timber sales on public lands where the now-endangered owl nested-a huge chunk of Oregon's old-growth land. Enviros cheered, loggers jeered, and a furious debate over the role of man in nature was born.

In traditional timber communities citizens revolted against the decision, claiming Oregon had forgotten its roots. Logging interests issued dire economic predictions. From Roseburg to Estacada, men sported ballcaps proclaiming, "I LOVE SPOTTED OWLSÉFRIED," and hung toy owls in effigy from the rear-view mirrors of their pickups.

"If it comes down to my family or that bird, that bird's going to suffer," one logger told Time in 1990. "Where would we be right now if everything that lived on this earth still survived-the saber-toothed tiger, the wooly mammoth? Things adapt or they become extinct."

At the same time, environmentalists emboldened by the legal victories were standing in the way-literally-of whatever old-growth harvests they could. Some chained themselves to trees; others drove iron spikes into tree trunks capable of mangling chainsaws-or the limbs of loggers.

In April 1994, President Clinton issued the Northwest Forest Plan, which banned logging from 80 percent of 24.5 million acres of federal land spread across Oregon, Washington and Northern California. Polls showed that this is what people wanted: to leave the last ancient trees standing.

The timber industry never recovered. In 1989, Oregon loggers brought in 8.42 billion board feet of lumber, 39 percent of which came from federal land. In 2002, loggers harvested 3.9 billion board feet-and a minuscule 4.2 percent came from federal land.

Since 1989, 160 Oregon mills have closed; the timber industry has lost 20,000 jobs, and now employs just 53,200 workers. Towns like John Day, Burns, Westfir, Boring, Dillard, Creswell and Drain atrophied.

Of course, the responsibility for big timber's collapse doesn't rest solely on the spotted owl's wings; mechanization also helped cut jobs, foreign wood markets busted, and forests were being razed at an unsustainable clip. But to those already suspicious of liberals and environmentalists, the owl made for an attractive scapebird.

In the 1990s, the high-tech industry picked up timber's slack. Silicon fueled an economic boom and gave Oregon its new national image as a clean, green and progressive state.

But during the last recession, timber got its silver lining. "One of the ironies is that timber did very well, thanks to the booming housing market, while tech did terribly," says John Mitchell, an economist at US Bancorp. "And remember, we're still the nation's leading lumber-producing state."



By the late '80s, Northwest Portland-once considered a virtual slum-had become one of the city's most fashionable neighborhoods. But someone had to make room for all those yuppies. Gentrification, pro- or anti-, became the battle cry. At the center of the debate: developer Phil Morford, who infuriated his neighbors by demolishing dilapidated old Victorian houses (often home to low-income tenants) and building row houses in their stead. In May, police arrested 23 neighborhood activists at a protest to save three houses Morford had scheduled for demolition. Four months later, the opposition took an uglier turn when eight row houses under construction on Northwest Overton Street went up in flames. Total damage: $250,000. Investigators said the cause was arson, but no one was ever charged with the crime. Since then, row houses-seldom charming but usually affordable-have become a familiar feature of Portland's older neighborhoods.

* A month after telling his brother he had uncovered an "organized criminal element" within the prison system, Michael Francke, head of the Oregon Department of Corrections, is stabbed through the heart in a parking lot outside his office. Ultimately, a low-level meth dealer named Frank Gable is convicted of the murder; 16 years later, conspiracy buffs still think it was a cover-up.

* Developer Joseph Weston offers $50,000 of his own money to relocate Portlandia to Tom McCall Waterfront Park. "It should be somewhere where people can look at it without worrying about getting hit by a TriMet bus," says Weston of Robert Kaskey's iconic sculpture. The City Council politely says no.

* Despite the wailing of local merchants, the City Council rechristens Union Avenue Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. The first choice, Front Avenue, was blocked by overwhelming opposition from business leaders. Dissenters later try, but fail, to change the name back.

* Old Town grocery Sav-Mor Grub is destroyed by two huge explosions, triggering arson investigations and a decade of rumors. Ten years later, court records state the ringleader was Starry Night nightclub owner Larry Hurwitz, who said drug dealing outside the grocery was hurting his business. Hurwitz later pleads no contest to murdering an employee (see page 54).

* Powell's Books receives bomb threats for hosting a reading of be-fatwahed Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.

* Pressure group ACT-UP steps up action to highlight the AIDS crisis: Members hand out free condoms at Lincoln High School, occupy the Portland office of the FDA and are thrown out at The Oregonian for trying to give condoms to publisher Fred Stickel, who refuses to run ads promoting prophylactics.

* Portland writer (and WW columnist) Katherine Dunn publishes her second novel, Geek Love, later nominated for a National Book Award.

* "It takes a lot of quarters to make ends meet," Church of Elvis curator Stephanie Pierce says ruefully. Early exhibits at the 24-hour, coin-operated art gallery include a collage of nude Barbies and an Elvis mannequin.

* WW reports on the hot new trend: fax machines.

* Dawn of the modern era: With a hiss of steam and a flirtatious gurgle, Starbucks serves its first Portland latte at Pioneer Courthouse Square. By 2005, the Seattle coffee empire will have completely enslaved Stumptown, boasting no fewer than 168 outlets.

* Los Angeles investors relocate the White Stag sportswear company to California, placing one of Old Town's best-loved landmarks in jeopardy until entrepreneur Bill Naito steps up to pay the sign's electric bills.

* A 28-year-old techno-entrepreneur named Jim Deibele starts one of the area's first commercial dial-up email services on a single PC in a back room of his Beaverton bookstore. Within 10 years, the ISP-Teleport Inc.-will boast 43,000 subscribers and almost 60 employees. Deibele later sells the company to OneMain, which sells it to EarthLink, whose service is so bad that frustrated Web surfers file a lawsuit.


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