U.S. Fish and Wildlife to present draft plan by Friday for saving northern spotted owl from extinction; previous plans criticized for not protecting enough habitat or allowing sufficient logging to supply mills

Lorena Madrigal

Lorena Madrigal

Jun 28, 2011 – Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Oregon , June 27, 2011 () – After months of tinkering, the Obama administration is due out this week with its last-ditch plan for saving the northern spotted owl from extinction.

Timber industry and conservation groups that have battled for decades said Monday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been unusually closed-mouth while developing the final recovery plan, and they have no idea what it will say.

The draft plan it is based on drew harsh criticism from both sides. Conservation groups felt it didn't protect enough habitat. The timber industry felt it didn't allow enough logging to supply mills and reduce the threat of wildfire.

Dominick DellaSala of the GEOS Institute, a conservation group, hopes the plan ushers in a new era of logging to restore the health of forests, rather than to extract timber.
"We've been at this for decades, like a big tug of war, and neither side is winning this," he said. "If we are going to move ahead, the administration needs to take the old forest off the chopping block and go in the direction of a restoration economy, not just for the owl, but for clean water, fish and wildlife and the old growth ecosystem."

Ann Forest Burns of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, is concerned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been so secretive with the changes it has been making since last February, when it backed off plans to issue the final.

"What I expect is a final plan that is basically the same as the draft plan, which was met with scorn by their critics on both sides," she said. "There is no science behind the policy changes in this plan."

She noted one hint is that correspondence from the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management indicates the two forest management agencies are happy with the changes, and don't foresee much impact on current logging.

The court ordered deadline is Friday.

Administrations have been trying to find a balance between logging and fish and wildlife habitat since 1990, when the spotted owl was designated a threatened species. But while logging on national forests in western Washington, Oregon and Northern California has dropped some 90 percent, the spotted owl continues to decline. One reason is that it faces a new threat from an East Coast cousin called the barred owl, which has been pushing the meeker spotted owl out of its territory.

Fish and Wildlife has said it will make many of the tough calls on habitat protection when it designates habitat critical to owl recovery later this year. It is also deciding in a separate process whether to try shotgunning barred owls in the woods to make more room for spotted owls.

The recovery plan is likely to play a role in whether Interior Secretary Ken Salazar revives a Bush administration plan to boost logging on BLM forests in Western Oregon. Salazar had withdrawn the Western Oregon Plan Revision as legally indefensible over Endangered Species Act issues, but a judge ruled that decision needed to be made with more public participation. Salazar has yet to say what he will do.

Fish and Wildlife began work on a recovery plan decades ago, but never finished it. The Northwest Forest Plan, created in 1994 to settle lawsuits that had locked up millions of acres of national forests to save the owl, took its place and created a system of reserves designated primarily for habitat for owls, salmon and other species, as well as areas for timber. But many of the reserves were covered with young stands that would need decades to mature into owl habitat — and the timber sections had patches of old growth where owls were still living.

When the Bush administration took over in 2000, it tried to dismantle the Northwest Forest Plan, and created a spotted owl recovery plan in 2008 that depended more on killing barred owls than protecting habitat. Found to be tainted by political influence, the plan was tossed out in federal court. The Obama administration has been working on its own, as well as looking at the possibility of shotgunning hundreds off not thousands of barred owls.

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