U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer blocks timber sales to protect the northern spotted owl on May 23, 1991.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 2/28/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5321
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On May 23, 1991, U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer (1929-2002) blocks timber sales in national forests to protect the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). Dwyer rules in favor of the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which challenged the U.S. Forest Service's 1986 Forest Management Plan as inadequate to protect the bird. Dwyer will order the Forest Service to halt more than 75 percent of its planned timber sales -- 2 billion board feet -- until the agency develops a final plan to protect the threatened species.

The lawsuit resulted from a 1986 management plan by the Forest Service to preserve critical habitat in old growth forests for the Northern Spotted Owl. The plan pleased neither the environmentalists nor the loggers whose jobs were cut. The controversy raged in the press, in protests, in Congress, in courts, and throughout the regulatory agencies. In 1990, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the species as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act and began work on a plan -- separate from the Forest Service -- to preserve the species' habitat. National Forests comprised 20 percent of Washington state land.

Dwyer held that the Forest Service had not complied with the National Forest Management Act of 1974, which required the agency to make plans for the maintenance of "viable populations of existing native and desired non-native vertebrate species in the planning area” (The Northern Spotted Owl).  Dwyer also held that the Forest Service had to comply with the Endangered Species Act and not just prevent extinction, but maintain a viable species.

Dwyer rejected arguments about the economic consequences of stopping timber sales. Dwyer stated, "The timber industry no longer drives the Pacific Northwest's economy. Job losses in the wood-products industry will continue regardless of whether the northern spotted owl is protected.  The argument that the mightiest economy on Earth cannot afford to preserve old-growth forests for a short time, while it reaches an overdue decision on how to manage them, is not convincing today" (The Seattle Times).

Immediately, there were more protests and legislators filed bills to change the laws under which Judge Dwyer's decision was made. Dwyer was assailed for his "14 pages of diatribal discourse," and commended for the "best summary we have seen of this dispute" (Seattle P-I).

On May 28, 1992, Dwyer rejected the new plan by the Forest Service that set aside 5.9 million acres in three states.

On December 21, 1994, Dwyer accepted the Northwest Forest Plan as in compliance with the National Forest Management Act. The new plan permitted the harvest of one billion board feet of timber on public land in Washington, Oregon, and California, less than one fourth of the logs cut in the 1980s. The plan also provided for watershed restoration in logged areas.


Bill Dietrich and David Schaeffer, "Owl Ruling Halts Logging in Much of Northwest," The Seattle Times, May 24, 1991, p. A-1; Eric Pryne, "Owl Plan Sent Back for More Analysis," Ibid., May 29, 1992, p. B-2; Eric Pryne, "Clinton Forest Plan Upheld,"  Ibid., December 21, 1994, p. A-1; "Learning to Live With The Clinton Forest Plan, Ibid., December 23, 1994, p. B-10; "Old-Growth Cutting Ban Reaffirmed," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 24, 1991, p. B-1; Steve Miletich, "William Dwyer: A Federal Judge Who Relishes The Tough Cases,"  Ibid., April 17, 1992, p. A-1; "The Northern Spotted Owl," Forest History Society website (www.lib.duke.edu/forest/ usfscoll/policy/northern_spotted_owl /index.html).
Note: The date of this timeline essay was corrected on December 26, 2010.

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