Commentary on the Mexican Spotted Owl Lawsuit

Editor’s Note: The Arizona judge presiding in WildEarth Guardian’s lawsuit over the Mexican spotted owl recently amended the decision to reinstate the issuance of personal firewood permits in the five New Mexico forests included in the order. The injunction still prohibits other important timber activities that come under the umbrella of restoration projects such as stewardship blocks, thinning contracts, and prescribed burns. I’ve been reading through all the comments and editorials about this lawsuit that flooded the internet and newspapers.  A significant number of them reflect a certain environmentalism sin gente that is often emotionally laden and short on scientific, political, and social analyses of our relationship with the natural world. A similar reaction to the 1995 Mexican spotted owl lawsuit that shut down New Mexico forests resulted in a bitter rift within the environmental community and hardship in our communities. I wrote an editorial in La Jicarita in 2000, five years after that lawsuit that I believe is still relevant to today’s situation. It’s also a chapter in my book, Culture Clash: Environmental Politics in New Mexico Forest Communities, which provides the history of the 1995 Mexican spotted owl lawsuit.

  La Jicarita Editorial, September 2000


When Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature was published in 1996, many environmentalists interpreted its message—that “nature” is a human idea, with a long and complicated cultural history—as a hostile attack on the environmental movement. The book, an anthology of essays by well-known teachers of environmental science, history, sociology, biology, etc., was born of a conference at the University of California at Irvine in 1994, where participants came together to look at environmental problems from a humanistic, interdisciplinary perspective. The book’s editor, William Cronon, addresses the attack by environmentalists in the book’s foreword: “The criticisms we offer—whether of environmentalism in particular or of American ideas of nature in general—are intended to encourage greater reflection about the complicated and contradictory ways in which modern human beings conceive of their place in nature. . . . At a time when threats to the environment have never been greater, it may be tempting to believe that people need to be mounting the barricades rather than asking abstract questions about the human place in nature. Yet without confronting such questions, it will be hard to know which barricades to mount, and harder still to persuade large numbers of people to mount them with us.”

This question is what many of us in el norte have been asking for the last few years: has the pendulum swung too far in our reaction to what humans have “wrought” on the “natural” world so that many environmentalists, rather than helping find a middle ground to lighten this heavy hand, encourage the notion of man’s separateness from nature? The failure of these environmentalists to deal with human social issues because of this idea of separateness results in policies like Zero Cut [a 1997 initiative of Forest Guardians to stop all commercial logging on public lands] and the Wildlands Project, which define any human touch, be it corporate or community, as inherently bad.

Cronon, who is a professor of history, geography, and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, talks about this dualism in his chapter “The Trouble with Wilderness.” By defining wilderness as something that stands apart from humanity, environmentalists often encourage conflict between those who value wilderness and those who are too preoccupied with solving their own environmental problems of toxic poisoning or loss of land, water, and land-based employment: en otras palabras, the poor. “This in turn tempts one to ignore crucial differences among humans and complex cultural and historical reasons why people may feel differently about the meaning of wilderness,” Cronon writes.

By not addressing issues of environmental justice, environmentalists lose their moral ground. Here in northern New Mexico, both Native American and Hispano traditional communities have been dependent upon their surrounding forests for hundreds of years; when these common lands became public lands, they lost most of the “inhabited wilderness” that sustained them as societies. As rural el norte becomes more vulnerable to global economics it is the responsibility of all of us who value wilderness to extend our concern to the sovereignty of inhabitants of wilderness. And there are many groups doing just that: community forestry groups like La Montaña de Truchas and Madera Forest Products, and the coalition that is working to rehabilitate the Santa Barbara Grazing Allotment (including the Quivira Coalition). These are our issues of environmental justice.

We believe that there can be a more holistic way of integrating both cultural and natural landscapes where conflicts can be resolved. Too many environmentalists speak in absolutes, devising ethics in the abstract and applying them across the board. We must be able to find a middle ground based on the ethics of place, incorporating the social, ecological, political, and economic realities of each situation. In her chapter “Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted,” Anne Whiston Spirn sees this middle ground as that between John Muir’s idea of nature as “temple” and Gifford Pinchot’s idea of nature as “workshop,” a balance between reverence and use. Just as the loggers and environmentalists of the Pacific Northwest must come to terms with the best way to save ancient forests and the small-town economies dependent upon logging, so too must we in el norte commit to keeping people on the land through sustainable use of our forests and watersheds. Another contributor to the book, James Proctor, in his chapter, “Whose Nature? The Contested Moral Terrain of Ancient Forest,” calls these efforts “inclusive environmentalism, one uniting it with other social movements in a common moral cause: to help create a more livable world for all of us, humans and nonhumans alike.”









  1. Thank you for this essay.
    Gary Snyder wrote (in “Practice of the Wild”, a top-notch book) of our ancient ways of relating to the earth. Communities – tiny villages, small towns – were usually surrounded by zones of different human use. Nearest our settlements would be agricultural land for crops; outside of or next to crop land would be pasture/grazing land; and as one progressed outward, the land would be less used by humans and more left to other beings. But there was very little, if any, land that was not visited and used by humans at all.
    The idea of wilderness being a place free of humans is, I’ve read, a modern invention; this thinking would seem strange to our distant ancestors.

    • When I was a girl in the 7th grade there were three billion people on the planet. My distant ancestors in Finland were in a totally different realm. In New Mexico there were Indians and Spanish invaders.

    • Very few people advocate the position that Wilderness is a place “not visited and used by humans at all. That is primarily a mischaracterization put forth by Trumpish, anti-public lands advocates. All cultures value protecting some areas from commercial uses for cultural and ecological values.

  2. I feel that in this climate change time all resource related occupations need be supported to restore habitats and to be paid for restoration. In forest related jobs, restoration should mean planting , burming, seed collecting and distribution and more. Unfortunately in this time period we
    need be super creative and super diligent in getting support for those who financially will be impacted by necessary changes if we are to even sustain life, humans included. All things pass.

  3. Second time trying to leave a reply.
    Ancient ancestors? Of yours? Indians? Spanish invaders?
    Climate change is questionably reversible. It would require massive changes. Rural communities and actuallly everyone else, need alter our current way of life including livelihoods. Not a cheery position.

  4. It’s kind of hard to believe that, in the era of massive climate change, anyone thinks we need more of a “humanist” approach. It’s the “humanist” position that brought us global warming and the attendant mess we are now in. We need LESS of a humanist approach and more of a we’re-the-destructive-cog-in-the-Gaian-ecosystem approach, if we hope to avert total climate catastrophe.

  5. It’s also a bait and switch to suggest that environmental groups are “not addressing issues of environmental justice.” Who, then, is? Logging corporations? The oil and gas lobby? The Forest Service, which cares about nothing but politics as usual and completing their privatized logging and burning contracts? Environmental groups have long partnered with social justice groups; their concerns are not mutually exclusive.

  6. The Mexican Spotted Owl is a symbol of Endangered & Threatened Species. We won’t survive if they do not. If trees are cut and habitat destroyed for supposed human gain, we gain nothing. Our traditions will die with us.
    It is foolish to think otherwise.

    Carol johnson

    • This injunction has shut down forest restoration projects sponsored by coalitions of environmentalists, the Forest Service, community watershed groups, and other government agencies that are working to make our forests more resilient to disease and catastrophic fire, which in the end enhances owl and other species habitat as well as our local watersheds and the Rio Grande, lifeblood to New Mexico. They also support local employment and provide firewood for those dependent upon that resource for heating their homes. What is it that you propose be done to restore an unhealthy, overstocked, and disease prone forest? Leave it alone to further decline or burn like what has happened in the Jemez Mountains, where entire ecosystems will probably never recover?

      • With all of the twisted interpretations of the spotted owl’s recent win in court against the US Forest Service that have been appearing in the local press, it’s important to understand the simple facts of the case. The lawsuit did NOT deprive locals of firewood gathering in the forest; the Forest Service did that, the day after the ruling, in an intentional misinterpretation of the ruling and an attempt to prejudice the public against the ruling. The Forest Service then immediately reversed it’s decision. Locals were prevented from gathering firewood, for one day, by the Forest Service.

        There is no independent science supporting the notion that our forests are “diseased,” “overstocked” (with what?), or unhealthy. The Forest continually repeats this nonsense to justify its constant toxic burning and clearcutting of our forests. There is also no evidence that burning up and clearcutting our forests makes them any less fire prone.

      • I doubt it’s worth the effort to try to correct your misinformation, but I’ll give it one more try. A delegation of state representatives went to WildEarth Guardians executive director John Horning to ask him to petition the court to release personal firewood gathering. The order issued by the court was vague, in that it said all “timber management” activities were to cease. There’s plenty of science to substantiate that the forests are overstocked with—guess what—trees! Small trees and doghair thickets that impact riparian and watershed replenishment. There is no clearcutting occurring in New Mexico forests right now. It’s all thinning, stewardship, and restoration projects aimed at rectifying the no-burn policy that was enacted for way too long that created the “diseased” and “overstocked” forests we now have.

  7. All Forest Service “thinning” projects are clearcutting. By their own definition, their “thinning” takes out >90% of all trees. That is not thinning, it’s clearcutting. Here’s a link to a Santa Fe New Mexican Article quoting Bill Armstrong, fuel specialist for the Santa Fe National Forest: “We have more … trees than we know what to do with, and they are the cause of many of the problems we face. We’re going to do everything we can to get rid of about 95 percent of them.”

    Forest Service “thinning” has not changed since Armstrong made that statement.

    Climate science is very clear on one point: the best solution we have right now to climate change is to plant billions of trees–and, as Greta Thunberg said this week, leave existing forests intact–not cut them down or burn them.

  8. This is very well said. Thank you for sharing it. It helped me to see more clearly what is meant by environmental justice.

    Best regards,
    Vincent Herr


  9. Exact quote from Greta Thunberg:
    We should of course be planting as many trees as possible. But equally important – and hardly ever mentioned – is to leave the existing ones standing and to leave the natural habitats intact. 0ctober 2019

    • I live next to the Carson forest at 8200′ and am a frequent visitor, and have a wood burning stove. I don’t claim to know a lot. There’s a lot of frustration on all sides.

      The unintended consequences of both action and inaction hold us accountable, what we think we know today won’t be what we think we know tomorrow. The forest service will mark the trees and be held accountable for any unintended consequence of the particular recipe they choose. The leñeros will be held accountable for any unintended consequence of following the recipe. And those stopping restorative action or proposing inaction will be held accountable for any unintended consequence of inaction.

      No one wants the spotted owl to decline.The forest service does have a budget to take inventories and so it does. Whether it’s enough is being debated. I attended a Carson plan open meeting in July where only three others showed up. One asked if the NM meadow mouse had been inventoried and the answer was yes. No question about the spotted owl was asked. The next meeting I was the only non forest service attending and asked my questions for two hours.

      Some of the other little critters try to hide from that spotted owl at dinner time, like the endangered NM meadow mouse. As for spotted owls they try to hide from the likes of red tailed hawks.

      However, science dictates a completely overgrown forest isn’t the healthiest forest for wildlife, vegetation, nor science says, get this, best for maximum carbon capture.

      Where cutting is now restricted in the Pecos Wilderness 24,735 acres, Wheeler Peak Wilderness 19,000 acres, Latir Peak Wilderness 20,000 acres, Cruces Basin Wilderness 19,000 acres, there is still old growth habitat left after the current relative scale of planned subsistance fuel wood cutting and corrective thinning in the Carson 1.5 million acres.

      Before this controversy I heard it said from pueblans, where owls are considered positive messengers and have been spiritual for centuries, that owls will willingly find a new home if disturbed.

      Find more documents about the science going into the 272 page draft Carson forest land management plan, 475 page volume 1 and 240 page volume 2 of Draft environmental impact statement, and until November 7 make substantive comments on the website:

      Also, #310: Restoring composition and structure in southwestern frequent-fire forests

      RMRS General Technical Reports (RMRS-GTR

      A main area of spotted owl concern has been the proposed logging of Sacramento Mountains around Cloudcroft

      Of concern in Taos valley

  10. This court ruling appears to have nothing to do with Wilderness as your criticism seems to address. It does have to do with forest health, specifically actions affecting the owl forest wide. If the agencies are not monitoring the forest adequately, how can you suggest current forest management is being conducted according to science? It seems as though you should agree rather than revert to your outdated, overgeneralizations about the intentions of environmental organizations.

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