A Bird in the Hand

The fate of the northern goshawk--and the timber industry--could rest with Richard Reynolds. He's not out of the woods yet.

Skittish, tough, this bird is a bullet of feather and bone.
Under the shadowy canopy of a high pine forest, it hurls itself from a tree like a two-pound smart bomb, crimson eyes trained on its airborne prey. Midair, it flips, overtaking a smaller bird from below, then forks its talons into the belly. The vanquished bird peeps, flutters, slackens in final defeat. The body will be plucked clean and carried back to the nest to feed the hunter's young. The head, the trophy, will be devoured by the hunter itself.

The victor of this race is a bird so agile, so fast that its nickname is "gray ghost." Its image once adorned the helmet of Attila the Hun. It can build a sturdy nest eighty feet above the earth or take down a speeding hare mid-stride. On a plateau soaring 7,000 feet above the Grand Canyon's floor, the northern goshawk (GOSS-hawk) is aerial king of the forest.

But the goshawk's kingdom is shrinking. In a government office 500 miles to the north, the bird and its reign have become the subject of legal warfare. This elusive predator has the power to make or break scientific reputations, to gut the Endangered Species Act, to suck the life out of the Western timber industry. If it lasts that long.

The goshawk is a bird on the edge.

Nobody knows the goshawk's regal beauty and ecological vulnerability better than Richard Reynolds. Nobody, for that matter, knows better what havoc this bird could wreak.

In a few minutes, Reynolds will lean back, prop his brown cowboy boots on his desk and take a swig of coffee. But for the moment he is perched on the edge of his chair, clearly agitated. For the past three days here in his Fort Collins office, Reynolds has spent countless hours talking on the phone with United States Department of Agriculture lawyers back in Washington, D.C. They should have had these conversations months ago, he grumbles. In less than two weeks, they'll be heading to court to fight an environmental group's demand for the reams of data Reynolds has collected on the northern goshawk. Raw data. His data. "As a scientist," he says, "that's my lifeblood."

More than three decades ago, while a graduate student at Oregon State University, Reynolds first made the connection between the survival of old-growth forests and the well-being of some rare birds, including the goshawk and the northern spotted owl. Continue to log old forests, he realized, and these birds might not survive. Sound the alarm, and perhaps both the old forests and their avian tenants could thrive.

"I've been in this business for 35 years," he says, "trying to find species that are sensitive." And he's succeeded: Every bird he's researched seems destined to cause major upheaval in the timber industry.

But today, mention Reynolds's name and Arizona environmentalists see red, not green. They lambaste his work in scientific rebuttals, fault him for not releasing data, charge him with being a U.S. Forest Service yes-man. The guy who'd rather spend his time in the woods than anywhere else is spending more and more of his days in offices consulting with lawyers.

Reynolds grew up near Santa Barbara but spent many happy, adventurous summers in Yosemite National Park, where his great-uncle worked for the National Parks Service and lived in a government-issued cabin in a cluster of ponderosa pines. After high school, Reynolds spent a year in college, then dropped out and went to work for the state forestry division in northern California. Four years later he returned to college to study botany, entomology and his wildlife specialty: owls and accipiters, which include Cooper's hawk, the sharp-shinned hawk and the northern goshawk.

Out scouting one day in the woods, Reynolds bumped into another OSU graduate student, Eric Forsman. Both were fascinated with the winged kings of the old-growth forests.

They would alert each other when their pet species were sighted and often trekked in the woods together. Reynolds recalls one trip during which they covered many miles; that night he fell into an exhausted sleep. When he awoke, he found himself and his sleeping bag buried under two feet of fresh snow.

Forsman and Reynolds were alarmed by the clear-cutting they saw in the Oregon woods in the late 1960s. "They destroyed forty, fifty, eighty acres in one fell swoop," says Reynolds. "And so the change in forests was rapid."

After Forsman was drafted and sent to Vietnam, Reynolds continued to witness their study areas bulldozed into dirt. "By the early '70s, I was upset," he remembers. "We had worked hard to find these rare birds in the existing habitat, and the next year they'd come in and clear-cut. I finally put together a big package of information that I was going to send to a bunch of environmental groups."

Reynolds marched into his professor's office to announce his plan. "And my professor said, wait a minute--let's not send the package out. Let's get all of the players who might be involved."

Close to thirty people from the university, the timber industry and land-management agencies attended the daylong seminar where Reynolds laid out his information. "Basically, for the first time they were confronted with a possible effect of their extensive clear-cutting," he says. "And they didn't pay any attention, and they didn't pay any attention, and they didn't pay any attention. And then, sometime in the middle 1980s, someone filed a petition to list the spotted owl.

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