KIERAN SUCKLING didn't want to meet at the Sundowner Lounge in Alpine, a logging village near the New Mexico border, 8,500 feet up in the White Mountains. "You can get killed talking about spotted owls in there," he said with characteristic overstatement. Certainly, Alpine is the kind of place where locals might show you their guns for no apparent reason, and the Sundowner is the kind of joint where the din suddenly dies and every feed-store baseball cap turns in unison when a stranger walks into the room.

Suckling and his roommate Peter Galvin are a bit out of place here, partly because of their neohippie appearance. They're boyish men with wild beards and wild eyes, types that haven't been seen, metaphorically speaking, since 1974. Their greater sin, however, is being contract owl surveyors for the U.S. Forest Service, textbook examples of environmentalists and (gasp!) preservationists, at least from a logger's perspective.

They speak passionately, mystically, of moonless nights stumbling down gulleys deep in the forest, calling for Mexican spotted owls with an achingly lonely four-note hoot that trails off in the darkness. And sometimes when they find one, it will fly down to visit, to stare inquisitively with dark brown eyes. The little bird is so trusting it sometimes dozes off on a branch in midvisit.

"It's like a godhead," says Galvin with earnest hyperbole. "I want to get down on my knees when I see one." There are perhaps 2,100 of them left. And if the owl is not truly magical, it is certainly a creature of some political power, considering that this same naive and engaging little bird--like the more notorious northern spotted owl--has forced the U.S. Forest Service to its knees more than once, blocking or delaying timber sales and raising a national controversy.

The owl has become a symbol, and, more important, a legal weapon by which environmental activists can slow the deforestation of America. "The real issue is the forest," says Suckling. "There are laws to protect species, but not the forest." The Endangered Species Act is one of the few environmental laws that has teeth, but it tends to encourage the salvation of one species at a time when the entire forest ecosystem is at risk. The Mexican spotted owl, as a proposed addition to the endangered species list, is protected. So is its lesser-known neighbor, the northern goshawk, even if the old-growth and multiconifer forest they live in is not. And if there is little question that the owl and goshawk will eventually go the way of the dinosaur, there is great debate over the viability of the forest.

Here in Alpine, the current skirmish in the ongoing debate centers on 7,000 acres of mostly ponderosa pine called the Campbell timber sale. The Forest Service wants to have it logged for saw timber and pulpwood--though the agency justifies the tree cutting by describing it as "thinning" and "disease control."

According to the Forest Service, it cuts down trees to eliminate dwarf mistletoe and tree-killing beetles. It cuts to rejuvenate decadent forest, with small-scale clear cuts called "regeneration seed cuts" that are supposed to explode with seedlings a few seasons later.

The local loggers and sawmills want the business the trees would provide. But a host of environmental groups, including Suckling's Greater Gila Biodiversity Project, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, Forest Guardians and the Audubon Society, have appealed the sale.

As timber sales go, it's a modest cut, and has already been whittled down from 12 million board feet to less than three million, but its callousness to wildlife has angered the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Everybody in this impasse, from the sawmill operators to the tree huggers, spouts scientific theory to explain how each of them is trying to save the forest. And nobody can see the forest for the foresters.

mexican spotted owls need the dense cover of old-growth mixed conifers to live, hunt, breed and hide from predators. If loggers or government foresters happen upon a spotted owl, they are obligated by law to mark off a 2,000-acre territory around it; the 450 acres immediately surrounding the nest cannot be entered at all, and only 516 acres of the territory can be logged.

Whereas those guidelines protect existing birds, they do not allow the species to propagate. Mexican spotted owls are extremely territorial; if a nesting pair has offspring, the fledglings will eventually be expelled from the 2,000-acre island of old growth, and where will they go then? Bureaucrats are territorial beasts, too, and in Arizona, timber and wildlife regulations have caused tensions among the various overlapping state and federal agencies charged with the owls' welfare. Before any timber is cut on national forest land, the Forest Service must publish a decision notice. It makes available the environmental assessment of the sale area to other government agencies and to the general public, opening a 45-day window to file appeals. It's a tedious process that the Forest Service sees as such an impediment that it's trying to abolish it, and not just because of interference from environmental groups.

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