On Thanksgiving Eve, as people headed out of town to visit their families for the holidays, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released its final critical habitat designation for the spotted owl. This was eagerly anticipated by both the timber industry and environmental groups, which both rightfully realized that habitat was going to be the key question in the feds’ new spotted owl plan.
The final habitat designation is a mixed bag. The owl habitat was reduced from 13.9 million acres in the preliminary habitat plan to 9.6 million in the final plan. Timber leaders were particularly happy that the feds removed private land from the owl’s habitat, especially considering private land had never been part of the equation until the Obama administration released the preliminary habitat plan in February.
The Washington Forest Protection Association said it was “pleased” that private land was removed.
“The federal government has never designated private lands as critical habitat as they encouraged private landowners to use the voluntary mechanisms like Habitat Conservation Plans, and other long-term conservation contracts, such as Safe Harbor Agreements to complement federal recovery efforts. In fact, in Washington State alone, more than 2 million acres of state and private lands are encompassed in these voluntary federal conservation agreements, in addition to complementary state forestry regulations.“
But the final habitat plan will not apparently end the long legal battle over the spotted owl. Environmental groups said they were disappointed that private land was removed and that the owl’s total habitat was also reduced from the preliminary plan. Timber groups, meanwhile, counter that the owl’s habitat will still be nearly double from its last designation, in 2008.
The American Forest Resource Council, based in Portland, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is focusing too much on habitat.
“Unfortunately, habitat is not the limiting factor for the spotted owl,” said (AFRC President Tom Partin). “It is being out competed and killed off by the barred owl. Barred owl control may be the only answer, but thus far the Service has done little to show whether this is a practical option. Instead, it has devoted its time to massive critical habitat designations that provide no actual benefit to the owl.”
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., said the spotted owl plan is still misguided.
“I have noted and do appreciate the agency’s decision to spare private land and much of the state land – something I asked them to specifically consider in my July letter. Since that time, however, our region’s forestland has been rocked by devastating wildfires that ravaged half a million acres of Washington’s forestland. The wildfire, insects and disease threats that originate in our sick federal forests do not respect the state and private delineations that exist on maps – they pose a threat to every inch of Washington’s forest lands. That danger level will remain until federal land is managed back to health.”
More owl habitat will mean more lawsuits from environmental groups, timber leaders say.
The expanded area is also likely to increase lawsuits from environmental groups on individual timber sales across the spotted owl’s range, said Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers.
“That’s one of the very few certainties about this,” he said. “There will be more appeals and lawsuits.”
The habitat plan itself could also be subject to lawsuits from either side.
Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, called the service’s decision “flawed.” It included land that doesn’t host spotted owls, he said, and isn’t necessary for owl conservation.
Partin’s group is among those that sued over the last habitat designation. When it comes to a new lawsuit, Partin said: “We’ll be looking at that.”