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.

Arizona Game and Fish Department has jumped into the breach frequently enough that the Forest Service has begun to sidestep it. In 1989, for example, the Forest Service went so far as to wait until Norris Dodd, then a wildlife-habitat specialist for the Game and Fish Department's Pinetop office, went on vacation before it published notice on a timber sale it knew would raise eyebrows.

Dodd is now regional supervisor. He's a tall, dark-haired man, and he speaks so fast and so forcefully you want to tape-record him and play him back at half-speed.

"Campbell is such a little piece of the big picture," he says, "and yet in a lot of ways it's very representative of what is happening, both in the process, the public involvement, the conflict as well as the resource concern."
Early last December, the Forest Service published the decision notice on the Campbell sale. Over in Pinetop, members of Dodd's wildlife staff were scratching their heads over the environmental assessment. "There were virtually no wildlife concerns," Dodd remembers, his voice rising. "They were dropping forest diversity, they were eliminating cover, they were dropping a lot of indicator species below forest-plan levels, such as Abert squirrel and goshawk." The Forest Service, he says, was reducing spotted-owl habitat to near minimums, and had not conferred with the Game and Fish Department on any of it.

Midwinter is not the best time to double-check a timber sale, especially when there are four or five feet of snow on the ground. But Dodd wangled a small plane, flew over the sale and took a video to prove that the Campbell sale was not dominated by big timber that needed to be thinned.

The Forest Service was incensed by the fly-over. But when the Game and Fish Department threatened to legally appeal the sale, the Forest Service capitulated and on February 3 removed more than 500 acres from it. The Game and Fish Department was not the only organization to take exception to the environmental assessment. Jim Norton, who heads the Southwest branch of the Wilderness Society, had his attention yanked by the encroachment on goshawk and spotted-owl habitat as well and asked Karen Yarnell, a Flagstaff environmentalist, to drive to Alpine and take a look.

karen yarnell is a former Phoenix housewife who became a de facto timber-sale expert and forest gadfly. She's a petite and wiry blonde, with boyishly short hair, but on several occasions, if she has not exactly brought the Forest Service to its knees, at least she has made it genuflect.

In August 1989, she was driving up from Phoenix to her family's cabin on a deep-woods parcel of private land sandwiched between the Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests. As she neared the cabin, she noticed that many of the trees along the way were marked with blue paint.

Yarnell went to the district ranger station to ask what was going on, and discovered that the Forest Service had sold 15 million board feet from stands surrounding her summer home and that it was far too late to do anything about it.

Yarnell joined Southwest Forest Watch, a loose confederacy of environmental groups, and kept her eye on all sales in the area. When her marriage in Phoenix fell apart, she split for Flagstaff, enrolled in a master's program in forest management at Northern Arizona University, and found herself an expert on logging and the environment. To date she has been involved in more than 25 sales across the state, and that is why Jim Norton and the Wilderness Society called her to Campbell.

Yarnell walked the woods and confirmed Norton's suspicions. To her eye, there was too much harvesting in goshawk areas, more thinning than she thought necessary for healthy forest management, and not enough dead trees or "snags" left standing as wildlife habitat. Norton decided to appeal.

On February 6, Phoenix attorney Stephanie Lake filed on behalf of the Wilderness Society, Forest Guardians, the Sierra Club, the Northern Arizona Audubon Society and Kieran Suckling's Greater Gila Biodiversity Project. She faulted the environmental assessment and claimed that the sale violated the National Forest Management Act by reducing plant and animal diversity. She noted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not been consulted on the sale, and that the sale would be uneconomical. Finally, she listed the threatened or endangered species that would be affected, including the owls and goshawks, the loach minnow and the peregrine falcon. On March 3, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote to the Alpine district and asked it to withdraw the decision notice after citing similar concerns about wildlife. To date the Forest Service stands firm.

myron burnett guns the engine of a half-ton Forest Service truck to power it through the mud. "`Stuck' is just a relative thing," he drawls. "And if no one's there to see it, you're not stuck anyway."

Burnett's a part-Apache from Phoenix with a wispy beard and heavy-metal-length hair crowned by a filthy Stetson with a bull-snake hatband. He's lead marker for the Forest Service's Alpine district. "I walk through and look at every single tree," he says, and according to the silviculturist's prescription, he marks a blue slash on those trees to be cut and an orange W on those that will be "recruited" as snags.

He has the authority to veer from the plan, too, if he comes upon a patch of wild iris, elk calving grounds, a wetlands the planner didn't know about, or an owl or goshawk nest.

Burnett marked the controversial Campbell sale, and is leading a tour along with Dean Berkey, the Forest Service district ranger, and Jim Copeland, the wildlife biologist who prepared the environmental assessment that touched off the debate in the first place.

The purpose of the tour is to demonstrate how light the timber harvest will be in Campbell and show how much wildlife cover remains in adjoining sales that have already been harvested. The foresters point out dwarf mistletoe, diseased aspen stands. To hear them talk, one would think that selling the timber is just a coincidental side effect of forest management.

A week earlier, Karen Yarnell was taken on a similar tour--that the Game and Fish Department and New Times were explicitly told not to attend. After patiently listening to the Forest Service position, she asked them to take her to a few other stands she knew about. As she critiqued the sale proposal, the Forest Service crew looked down at their boots, but stuck to the company line. Berkey is an old-timer with a Jimmy Stewart voice whose preferred method of travel is on horseback. "Our mission is the sustained flow of all resources," he says, "recreation, wildlife, wood products, water, you name it."

The road winds and bumps along ridgelines beneath a high canopy of ponderosa pine through a prototypical Arizona forest: open, with little undergrowth.

Herds of elk slip quietly through the trees, deer in groups of three and four, a flock of wild turkeys, heads bobbing as they walk single file. Each time the animals pass, Burnett slows the truck so its occupants can watch silently, awed by the palpable wildness. Forest Service employees are as fond of animals as their environmentalist adversaries. Logging is everywhere in evidence. Stumps from 20-year-old cuts pepper the landscape, and so do rotting piles of "slash," waste branches cut from the felled trees. Aesthetics are deceiving, and a tidy forest is not necessarily a healthy one, and even the slash piles can be beneficial rodent habitat because they mimic nature's own deadfall.

Most of Arizona's forests have been logged two or three times since the 1940s. The wood, historically, went to small local mills. The loggers practiced "pick and pluck" methods, singling out the biggest trees and removing them. But during the Reagan era and the early years of the Bush administration, business boomed, partly because of a soaring economy, and partly because Reagan placed a timber-company executive in the Department of Agriculture overseeing the U.S. Forest Service.

The Wilderness Society claims the government was subsidizing the timber industry by selling national-forest trees at a loss. Consider the next time you pay $40 for a scrawny, six-foot-tall Christmas tree that the Forest Service is selling a 60-year-old, 40-foot-tall ponderosa pine for half that amount.

Forest Service officials privately wondered if the agency were cutting too much in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Responding to accusations by the Game and Fish Department and environmental groups that the agency was depleting timber resources, acting Forest Service supervisor Doug Barber admitted in a February 1990 in-house memo, "Our own 'gut level feeling' tells us they are probably correct."

Still, the company line cites the mission to manage timber resources, and finds supporters in the industry. "This is not a natural ecosystem anymore," says Jerry Drury, a forester for Stone Container Corporation, which owns a sawmill in nearby Eagar and a paper mill in Snowflake. "It's still a living organism. It's going to grow and change, and it needs to be harvested for ecological reasons."

But everyone concedes that the Forest Service is cutting far less than in the past. The question remains: Has irreparable damage already been done?

The truck bounces down to the canyon bottom into a green meadow bisected by an eight-foot-wide sliver of creek, the Campbell-Blue, from which the sale takes its name. Berkey is quick to point out that a stand along the edge of the clearing had been deferred from cutting because a northern goshawk was spotted there.

"This is not what we call typical goshawk habitat," he says, "but someone forgot to tell the goshawk." If there's sarcasm in his voice, it's because he's taken professional heat on his environmental assessment. "These people spend day after day right here where we are," he says. "If [environmental groups] want to make adverse remarks and they've never been here, that's tough for the field folks to take." there's a faded photograph on the wall of the regional office of Arizona Game and Fish Department in Pinetop that hints at what the local forests once looked like before logging. Judging from the skimmer hats on the men in the picture, it dates from early in this century. Ponderosa pines can take more than 150 years to mature, and as they do their bark turns slowly from black to yellow. The men in the photographs stand somber-faced next to giant yellow trees with trunks as thick as pickle barrels, trees far enough apart that a man could easily ride between them on horseback, and yet so vast in their foliage that little light could get through the canopy of their interlocking branches.

That forest is gone, yet Alpine has more remaining big yellow pines, and more old-growth stands of Douglas fir and spruce, than other forests in Arizona. That is why there is such a fuss.

"Campbell's the last reservoir of diversity out there," says Sharen Adams from the Game and Fish Department. She lays a topographical map on a conference-room table and points to earlier sales to the north and west of Campbell that have been heavily harvested in recent years. Then she asks her colleague, Mike Senn, to drive to nearby sites to show the cumulative effect of generations of logging.

Senn is a dashingly handsome young man, but his face is twisted in a scowl as he tools through the woods in his Isuzu Trooper. His commentary is a reverse image of the Forest Service line.

"I find this stretch of forest boring in its sameness," he says. Because of past logging, the remaining trees are of uniform age, height and width. It's a placid-looking stretch of countryside, but to his naturalist's eye, it's deficient. That's why current practices stress "uneven age" management, leaving trees of diverse age and size to better satisy the diverse needs of forest critters.

Along the way are piles of logs waiting to be picked up by logging trucks. In eight-foot-tall stacks, there's barely a log thicker in diameter than 11 inches, certainly nothing that comes close to the pictures on his office walls.

Finally, Senn reaches his destination, a cut so expansive the Forest Service felt compelled to post an official sign explaining the role of seed cuts in forest regeneration. Otherwise, what would tourists think of these brown and withered slash piles, dirt piles, stumps and charred logs? Along the edges of the clearings, at least 20 trees, suddenly unprotected and in the open, have been blown down in recent storms.

"It looks like a bomb went off," says Senn.

a pair of spotted owls live in the old-growth forest just beyond the balcony of Karen Yarnell's cabin. She calls them George and Gracie, and on summer evenings she listens to them call to each other in the twilight and watches them perch on nearby branches.

George and Gracie are her second pair, actually. The first pair nested in a stand along her fence. "They were silly-looking birds, and I didn't know what they were," she says. She was grateful to make their acquaintance because the nesting birds forced the Forest Service to defer logging along one side of her property.

They later disappeared about the same time a great horned owl showed up, and she assumed they had been eaten. Days after the dude fire, which devastated 24,000 acres along the Mogollon Rim just to the south of Yarnell's cabin, a new pair appeared. The two were likely driven from the fire, a clear illustration that suitable spotted-owl habitat is in demand.

In late afternoon, Yarnell points her Toyota up a driveway as steep and rocky as a landslide. Beyond the gate that marks the end of her property, the forest changes dramatically from big yellow pines to young growth flooded with sunlight because the overstory disappeared when the big trees were removed.

If the forest has changed beyond recognition since Yarnell moved in, it will change even more in the next year. As she motors down the muddy roads, the landscape alternates between recent cuts and stands of trees marked with blue paint to show which are to be harvested in the near future.

Yarnell turns onto the dirt road that hugs the edge of the Mogollon Rim. The road is a popular tourist destination. "In summer, people line up along here to camp," she says, "and look what they've done with it." Messy seed cuts scar the roadside stands. Yarnell fears that this patch of forest three hours away from the Campbell sale is what the Alpine district will soon look like.

The late afternoon explodes in electrical storms. After dinner, when the rain lets up, Yarnell drives out to meet with Kathy Taylor, a Forest Service wildlife specialist, and two of her owl spotters. The overcast sky promises a moonless and spooky night.

An owl flies low over the road in front of the truck, flapping its narrow wings as if in slow motion. It's white, too large to be a spotted owl, though it passes too suddenly for Yarnell to identify it. The "hooters" wait in a mint-green Jeep Cherokee at the intersection of two dirt roads, and Taylor jokes about "singing owl" in the school chorus as she navigates a double-track along a narrow ridgeline until she spots the checkered flag that signals owl country.

The hooters shuffle through wet grass to where the hillside drops away. Taylor raises a hand to her mouth and calls a lonely "hoo. . .hoo-hoo. . .hoooo" that echoes across the valley.

Lightning flashes silently across the horizon. She calls again, pauses, and again, and finally there's a distant reponse, three lonely hoots. The spotters are delighted. It's a male, they decide, and one of them takes a compass reading in the direction of the call and plots it on a topo map.

There's a sliding whistle, and they speculate as to whether it's a female, or a wishful imitation on the part of the male. Then they pile back into the Jeep to call from another spot and hopefully triangulate in on the nest site.

A mile down the ridge, Taylor calls again. A lost cow somewhere over the next hill bawls scoldingly. Wrong number. And then an elk bellows, followed by the high whine of coyote harmony. Then, finally, "Hoo. . .hoo-hooooo."

For the first time, Yarnell notices the blue slashes on the trees at the edge of owl territory, mostly on the big yellows.

On the trip back to the ranger station there's a sudden vision: In a clearing a lone snag that has been struck by lightning burns like a 60-foot sparkler. The hooters pile out of the Jeep with shovels and rakes, then realize the fire is too far up the tree for them to reach and that it will burn itself out without spreading anyway. The night is too wet, the tree line too far.

Yarnell points out that the surrounding stand is scheduled to be cut within days, but the irony goes unnoticed. Everyone stares dumbly as the snag lights the clearing, flaming like the burning bush, an obvious omen. And though they strain to hear the message, the forest is stonily silent, except for the popping of burning wood.



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