Spotted owl still just as relevant in the West

2012-10-12 Ashley Bach

Twenty-two years after the spotted owl was listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildfire Service, the owl continues to resonate across the West. Countless rural communities are in shatters and the timber industry has bled thousands of jobs, but the federal government's policies on the owl still matter. Just in recent weeks, the spotted owl has surfaced in the race for Washington State Lands Commissioner, a Bureau of Land Management timber sale in Southern Oregon and even the debate over bringing more coal trains to Northwest ports.

We wrote last month about a panel of timber, environmental and government leaders formed by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to figure out a way to increase the timber harvest on federal lands after decades of decline because of the spotted owl. In naming the members of that panel this week, Gov. Kitzhaber referenced the toll brought by the owl on rural communities when he said "the human and environmental costs of the status quo are unacceptable."

A study in July from Oregon State University and Michigan State University (which we wrote about here) shows that the real way to save the spotted owl isn't to stop all timber harvest - but to actively manage our forests with heavy thinning. It's possible that Kitzhaber's panel may be able to reach a solution along these lines, though we will wait and see.

Meanwhile, a proposed spotted owl critical habitat designation released by the federal government earlier this year has drawn widespread scorn from rural communities, farmers, ranchers, local officials and the timber industry. The new habitat designation, if allowed to stand, would double the amount of critical owl habitat and extend that habitat to private land for the first time, leading to the loss of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue for timber counties.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service took public comment on the plan for several months and will release the final habitat plan on Nov. 15. To show how politically charged the plan is, three wildlife groups this week put out a press release summarizing the comments they submitted, even though the comment period ended three months ago.

It's important for rural communities and the timber industry to stay closely involved in the ongoing policy discussions over the spotted owl. The federal government's spotted owl policy may have started decimating rural economies more than two decades ago, but it is far from over.