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Saving Spotted Owls and Ancient Forests

By the early summer of 1995 when I saw my first spotted owl—a mated pair sitting quietly, nearly concealed in the branches of a verdant Rocky Mountain Maple at the bottom of a steep, rugged canyon in the San Mateo Mountains in New Mexico—I felt as if I knew the species quite well.

owl Feb pc public domainI’d read nearly everything I could easily put my hands on about the species. From the documents listing the owl under the Endangered Species Act to agency plans for its recovery.

The story those documents told was of a timber industry run amok and a landscape under siege. Though the timber industry in the Southwest couldn’t rival the volume of logs cut in the Pacific Northwest, the ecological devastation to our forests, and the political controversy, were similar.

The ancient yellow-bellied ponderosa pine on the easy-to-access mesas fell first, in the early part of the 20th century, victim of railroad logging. By the late 1980’s the timber industry had logged much of the pristine, higher elevation spruce and fir as well. Incredibly, the timber industry then sought out the final frontier—with plans to helicopter log the virgin spruce and pine of some of the last remote, unroaded canyons of Arizona and New Mexico’s high country—the last retreat of the Mexican spotted owl.  

Few questioned the glowing reports issued by the Forest Service about volumes of board feet logged and the quarterly profits by companies like Rio Grande Forest Products.

This is the political and ecologic landscape that inspired the creation of Forest Guardians, which would later become WildEarth Guardians, in the summer of 1989. Sam Hitt and his two lawyer friends, Steve Sugarman and Letty Belin, decided the forests needed a friend.  

Almost from the beginning the Mexican spotted owl has been our totem, and WildEarth Guardians its advocate—in federal courts, in Congress and with you as our partners.

In the beginning Guardians sought to stop individual timber sales—and we did.  In places like the Sangre de Cristos; and in the Zuni Mountains, the Jemez Mountains, and the Sacramento Mountains and on the Northern Rim of the Grand Canyon. 

In those places ancient trees still stand because of our legal and grassroots advocacy.

But Guardians is bold so when the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the spotted owl in 1993 we decided to think bigger.

We targeted the entire logging program in the southwest; 21 million acres and all 11 national forests in Arizona and New Mexico. We developed and implemented a legal strategy that exploited the Forest Service’s arrogance and that sought to expanded the law.

And In 1996 a federal judge issued a controversial legal injunction against all logging. It was—and still is—one of the largest in the history of the Forest Service; One that basically ended logging as we knew it in the Southwest.

Not everyone is glad we exist and that legal injunction created quite a backlash. Truthfully we were not only undaunted by the backlash, but instead emboldened by it.

We’re gritty. We get in the trenches and fight. We’re tenacious.  We may have grown up over the last 25 years—but we’ve never outgrown our core beliefs. We’re advocates who believe in the intrinsic right of nature to exist.

Today the landscape has shifted, but the battle—for the spotted owl and the Southwest’s forests—continues. While we’ve greatly expanded our size and scope, we’re still defending forests, and much more, now across the American West.

As Guardians celebrates 25 years of being a force for nature I am grateful for that pair of Mexican spotted owls in Water Canyon. I got to know owls a lot better that day as I stood in silence gazing at the pair while they sat peacefully next to one another in their aerial perch.

They’re endangered and their future remains uncertain. But our promise is that Guardians will continue to advocate and fight on their behalf—for the next 25 years and beyond.

I plan to be a part of it, and I suspect you do too.

For the wild,

John Horning Signature


John Horning
Executive Director
WildEarth Guardians

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