The release this week of the final spotted owl recovery plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came after months of delays, though at least it’s finally here. Both environmental groups and timber companies are still examining the final plan, but the initial reaction is not good.
Tom Partin, the president of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, said the new plan is essentially a land grab that will do nothing to protect the spotted owl from its more aggressive cousin, the barred owl.
“The spotted owl will not recover unless decisive action is taken to control the barred owl. Unfortunately, the Plan offers nothing more than studies and protocols while proposing massive new restrictions on both federal and private lands.”
The forest thinning proposed in the plan is also a large point of contention. The environmental groups think the thinning is too much, and the timber groups think it’s far too little.
“Thinning opportunity, that’s what’s always offered up to us as an alleged middle ground. But it’s pretty limited,” said Ray Wilkeson, President of the Oregon Forest Industries Council, to the New York Times.
Partin was even more forceful.
“The (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) will soon be out of plantation forests it can thin to provide even the inadequate level of harvest volume that has become the norm in recent years. The BLM Medford District is struggling to provide approximately one-third of the annual timber volume promised under the Clinton Northwest Forest Plan. This recovery plan will likely lead to further drastic reductions in available timber supply at a time when many rural Northwest communities face 15-20% unemployment and the remaining mills are hanging on by a thread,” said Partin.
Even the federal government has doubts about its own plan. Eric Forsman, a biologist for the U.S. Forest Service and one of the nation’s foremost experts on the spotted owl, said he’s not sure the plan will work.
Forsman and fellow owl scientist Bob Anthony, a retired fish and wildlife professor at Oregon State University, say success is uncertain because of the barred owl, which migrated from the east and was first documented in the Northwest in the 1970s. It’s larger, more aggressive, favors the same habitat and is a less picky eater than the spotted owl.
“Given that the barred owl is part of the equation,” Forsman said, “it’s no longer clear that protecting habitat is going to do the job.”
Controlled removal of barred owls to determine if spotted owls reclaim territory would be a worthwhile experiment, he said, but isn’t financially or logistically sustainable.
There is still a lot of work left to do. Both timber companies and environmental groups are waiting for the feds to release the critical habitat designation for the spotted owl, which will be drafted in November and won’t be finalized until late next year. This document will go a long way to guiding how Western forests will be managed. And it’s likely that the spotted owl plan will be challenged in court by one or both sides.