By Jeff Barnard
The Associated Press
GRANTS PASS, Ore. The Bush administration Tuesday proposed cutting 1.5 million acres from Northwest forests considered critical to the survival of the northern spotted owl, reopening the 1990s battle between timber production and wildlife habitat on public lands.
The owl, which became a symbol of the decline of the Northwest's timber industry, was declared a threatened species in 1990 due primarily to heavy logging in the old growth forests where it nests and feeds.
Recent research has noted that while old growth forests suitable for owl habitat have increased, owl numbers have continued to decline, and that the owl faces a new threat from a cousin, the barred owl, that has been invading its territory.
"One of the most upsetting things about this proposal is that the spotted owl wars of the 90s had simmered down quite a bit, and a kind of balance had been reached regarding logging and old growth forests," said Kieran Suckling, policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group in Tucson, Ariz. "This critical habitat proposal combined with the draft owl recovery plan sets the stage for reopening those wounds and pushing us back into an era of controversy and fighting."
The proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was a result of a settlement in a lawsuit brought by the timber industry. It was published in the Federal Register. A final decision is due by June 1, 2008.
The service called for cutting critical habitat for the owl from the 6.9 million acres of federal lands designated in 1992 by 22 percent, to 5.4 million acres. Among places removed are the Fort Lewis military base in Washington, national forest areas designated as wilderness since 1992, and some areas known as late successional reserves where most logging is prohibited to protect owl and salmon habitat.
Critical habitat does not by itself bar logging, but it does require federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to see whether a specific project, such as a timber sale, would jeopardize the recovery of an endangered species.
Since taking office in 2000, the Bush administration has been working to boost timber production in the Northwest, but it has been largely stymied by court rulings, including several that tossed out plans to log in critical habitat for the owl.
The proposal is based on a new draft recovery plan that designates areas critical to the owl's recovery and calls for killing some barred owls that have taken over spotted owl habitat, the Fish and Wildlife Service said. It also depends on better technology to map forests favored by owls and better understanding of what sorts of forests owls favor.
"This is not an effort to get out the (timber) cut," said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Joan Jewett from Portland. "This is an effort to identify where forest areas are most important to the conservation and recovery of the spotted owl."
But Dominick DellaSala, director of the National Center for Conservation and Policy and a member of the spotted owl recovery team, said from Ashland, Ore., that cutting timber is exactly what the changes are designed to do.
He noted that some of the biggest pieces of critical habitat removed from the new proposal are on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in Western Oregon, where the agency is working on a major new plan to boost timber production.
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, the timber group that sued the administration, said the groups' initial analysis was that the critical habitat areas should be even smaller, because they contain areas with no owls or no suitable habitat.
"The critical habitat should have a link to where the owls are and what the greatest threat is," West said from Eugene. "The greatest threat is the barred owl, not the loss of mature forest habitat."
He said environmentalists are fixated on using the owl as a surrogate to protect old growth forests, "instead of focusing on what the owl needs to survive."
After two decades of the heaviest logging ever on Northwest national forests, once the nation's top timber producing region, conservation groups won lawsuits demanding the U.S. Forest Service and BLM obey their own regulations and protect habitat for the spotted owl.
The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan cut timber production on national forests in Washington, Oregon and Northern California by more than 80 percent to protect owl and salmon habitat, contributing to mill closures and job losses that were particularly painful in rural areas with no other industry. The plan served as a de facto recovery plan until a new one was drafted this year.
Since then, the Northwest economy has turned to other industries, particularly high-tech, retirement and tourism, but some rural areas continue to struggle.
The public can comment on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's proposed critical habitat rule. The deadline is Aug. 13. Visit www.fws.gov/pacific/ecoservices/nsopch.html or contact 2600 SE 98th Ave., suite 100, Portland, Ore., 97266 or call 503-231-6179.