Foresters: Local impact of new spotted owl rules uncertain

Scott Swanson

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized a “science-based proposal” that designates 9.3 million acres of “critical habitat” in Oregon and other Northwest states to preserve the northern spotted owl from extinction.

The protected area, announced Nov. 21 by the service, includes Sweet Home Ranger District’s forests, District Ranger Cindy Glick said.

The plan nearly doubles the amount of Northwest national forest land dedicated to protecting the bird by the Bush administration four years ago. It includes about 2.9 million acres in Washington, 4.5 million acres in Oregon and 2.1 million acres in California but leaves out about 4.3 million acres of state and private forestland proposed earlier this year. It includes about 7.9 million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service, 1.3 million acres held by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 270,886 acres of state-owned land (mostly in Oregon) and 20,684 acres of municipal land in Marin County, Calif.

According to the service, spotted owl numbers continue to decline by an estimated 40 percent over the past 25 years, despite efforts to protect the birds, which were listed as an endangered species in 1990. Competition from larger barred owls, which have moved in from the eastern United States, has been identified as the most recent threat to the spotted owl.

Following extended litigation that resulted from the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan to protect the owl, federal timber sales were significantly reduced.

The northern spotted owl recovery plan’s stated goals are to protect the best of the spotted owl’s remaining habitat, revitalize forest ecosystems through active management and reduce competition from the barred owl.

At the same time, forestry officials have increasingly sought ways to thin the overgrown woodlands and find economically and environmentally viable ways to restore some of the revenue flow to their agencies and communities that border the forests, which has been cut off by the owl-related restrictions.

Paul Henson, state supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office, noted that “lands designated as critical habitat are not a reserve in the traditional sense. In many places, they should be actively managed to benefit spotted owls or meet other important conservation goals.”

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Velez said her agency is trying to determine how the new rules will affect its operations.

“We anticipate that it will have an impact on our timber program, but until we can fully apply the rules, we can’t say what those impacts will be,” she said. “We want to maintain forest restoration goals while protecting critical habitat.”

A Fish and Wildlife statement noted that critical habitat designation only affects federal actions in designated areas and doesn’t provide additional protection on non-federal lands unless proposed activities involve federal funding or permitting.

“Improved forest health is important for recovery of the northern spotted owl,” said Kent Connaughton, Regional Forester for the USFS Pacific Northwest Region. “We are actively managing National Forest lands to create more resilient ecosystems, improve wildlife habitat, and benefit communities.”

Jerome Perez, Oregon/Washington state director for BLM, said his agency has worked with Fish and Wildlife “to try to find the sweet spot – for the required conservation of the northern spotted owl and recognizing the importance of BLM lands to the social fabric of western Oregon.

“This rule is a direct result of those interactions,” he said.

Glick, who has been a vocal proponent of finding viable ways to utilize forest resources, said that various categorizations within “essentially the whole forest” will allow for more timber output in some areas than others.

“We’re a government agency,” she said. “We’re going to comply with the other government agencies and help out the owls as much as we can.”