T he spotted owl, a threatened species, isn’t the most commonly found critter in Oregon’s forests. But with the exception of Bigfoot, it’s certainly the most famous. There was bound to be a reaction, then, when Deschutes National Forest officials pointed to spotted owls last week in announcing that the discovery of a few hundred unstable trees at Cultus Lake might shut down a popular campground, day use area and perhaps even a boat launch for the summer.

The protections enjoyed by the owl under the Endangered Species Act and various forest plans “require the Forest Service to remove trees in the fall, outside of the owl’s breeding season,” officials wrote in a June 11 news release. “The Forest Service is planning to remove the affected trees this fall in anticipation of re-opening the campground for the 2018 season.”

Perhaps no one was angrier about the lost summer than Sandie Campbell, who runs Cultus Lake Resort. The resort operates a restaurant, store, marina and 23 cabins. All of these will remain open as planned, Campbell said Monday. Still, it’s hard to imagine that the closure of a popular day use area and 54-space campground nearby would not affect the resort’s business.

Having learned of the closure on the cusp of the lake’s busy season, Campbell let fly on the resort’s Facebook page. “Logging the campground could be done in a very short period of time,” she wrote Monday. “The owls (if they are really even nesting in the campground) won’t be devastated by some noise. They are after all ... in one of the busiest loudest Lakes in the area.”

She has a point.

Cultus is one of a small number of high Cascade lakes on which boaters and jet skiers may zip around as fast as they want. It’s no stretch to say that the highly developed eastern tip of the lake, which is where the resort, campgrounds, day use area and hazard trees are, isn’t exactly top-notch spotted owl territory. In fact, a 2003 environmental assessment for a handful of resort improvements notes that “Spotted owls were last seen using the nearby home range in 1988; subsequent surveys in the 1990s and the early 2000s yielded no response.”

Nonetheless, says Kevin Larkin, district ranger on the Deschutes, wildlife experts believe there are multiple birds occupying the area nearby, and they would be expected to use it as part of their range, especially to hunt. But not during the operational season, Larkin said, when they’re likely to avoid the area.

The common-sense argument against a summer-long closure to benefit owls almost makes itself. Whether the birds are absent from the area or simply avoid it, they’re unlikely to be affected by the speedy removal of trees that are bound to fall in any case in developed areas of a high-use, high-noise lake. Meanwhile, deep-sixing the entire summer would affect people whose income depends upon the lake and thousands of others who enjoy visiting it. So, hurry up and get chopping.

Unfortunately, common sense doesn’t direct the management of federal lands. Laws, plans and process do, and these guide forest managers in responding to problems such as the discovery of several hundred inconveniently dead and dying trees. In such cases, it may be easy to spot an absurd outcome, but impossible to identify a “bad guy.” Because, in fact, there may not be one.

Such occurrences can be particularly frustrating. It’s more satisfying to blame a bad actor than a system that has, despite the best of intentions, laid an egg. This is how faith in government institutions disappears. If the Cultus Lake owl absurdity is what the establishment produces, one might ask, why not give anti-establishment views and candidates a try?

The worst thing Deschutes officials could do is shrug and say, “Better luck in 2018.” Fortunately, they’re not doing that. Larkin held out hope on Tuesday that the planning, analysis and cutting will be complete by mid-summer. The agency is seeking to do various tasks concurrently rather than sequentially, as would usually happen.

And the owls? “Essentially,” he said Tuesday, “I think we’re going to be able to take the wildlife part off the table.” Good call.

Local forest service officials are not indifferent to the concerns of Cultus Lake visitors and business owners. They deserve credit for seeking to speed up hazard tree removal.

But when it comes to restoring the public trust frittered away by the past week’s events, there’s no substitute for following through. Mid-summer or bust.

— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.

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