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Northwest forests, spotted owls at risk

The Obama administration has put science back into play. But two decades after a plan to save NW forests, distractions keep the focus off owl and habitat protection.

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In Grays Harbor County, historically a timber-dependent area with high unemployment — earlier this year, it had highest unemployment rate in Washington — the timber economy peaked in 1929. It's all been downhill since the start of the Great Depression. But the county depends less on timber than it once did. And, in fact, until the Great Recession started in 2008, its unemployment rate was lower in the new millennium than it had been before the forest plan.

Economics were only one part of the equation. Normally, the federal government would have adopted a recovery plan and designated critical habitat for the owl. It started the process — a draft plan came out in 1992, and the FWS designated 6.7 million acres — but the Forest Plan seemed to make a recovery plan moot, so the FWS never finished. Then Bush was elected  — with the support of forest products industry executives — and his administration spent the next eight years trying to undercut his predecessor’s plan — or helping some forest products companies undercut it. The Bush administration said that Clinton had "promised" the Northwest a billion board feet a year, and it planned to make good on that promise.

The link between Bush actions and an industry wish list wasn't just conjecture. In 2003, a Freedom of Information Act request by Earthjustice uncovered a memo that laid out the wish list that the administration subsequently tried to follow. In order to boost logging to Clinton's billion board feet a year — actually 1.1 billion — industry executives wanted the administration to reduce habitat protection for the owl and the marbled murrelet, drop old-growth protection on BLM land in southern Oregon and northern California; scrap the Forest Plan's aquatic strategy, which was designed to protect salmon; and drop the requirement to "survey and manage" for the survival of fungi, invertebrates, and other species protected by the Forest Plan.

The Bush administration and its allies followed a pattern of "sue and settle." That is, an outside group would sue to challenge an environmental law or rule or policy, and rather than defend it, the administration would reach a settlement that gave the group what it wanted. In some cases, the plaintiffs were arguably just asking the administration to do what the law required. One such settlement led to a review of the owl's status. Status reviews are required every five years but the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't have the resources to do them that often. In the case of the owl, environmental groups feared that the administration would cook the science to say the owl was doing just fine, and would then try to de-list it.

Much to virtually everyone's surprise, the status review was scientifically sound — and it concluded that spotted owls were worse off than anyone had realized. Scientists had foreseen back in 1994 that the birds' population would continue to drop for decades, as some of the protected forest developed slowly into the kind of old-growth habitat the owls required. But the expected decline turned out to be more of an unexpected nosedive, especially in Washington state. While scientists had predicted an annual population loss of 1 percent, the average was closer to 4, and between the Canadian border and the Columbia River, it was more than 7.

The numbers looked bleak enough. And the owl was threatened in ways no one had envisioned in 1994: Invasive barred owls were displacing northern spotted owls way more than scientists had predicted. Sudden Oak Death, moving up the coast from California, posed an unknown risk to forests in which the birds lived. West Nile Virus, borne by birds and fatal to some species, might directly threaten the owls' survival. And then, of course, there was climate change, and the increased risk of big forest fires to which hotter, drier summers contributed.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Dec 11, 10:32 a.m. Inappropriate

As long as there are forests that haven't been logged, there will be those who want to log them, especially if they have big trees. This will never end. We will always have to defend these forests.

Steve E.

Posted Wed, Dec 12, 9:30 a.m. Inappropriate

This article states,“if we designate [critical habitat] on private and state land, people just go crazy.” Did you stop and consider that they are not crazy, they are just not willing to allow this spotted owl farce be used as an excuse to take control of private lands. Back up a few decades. The Spotted Owl is barely a resident of the Pacific Northwest. It's main habitat is Central America with a mere spattering into our lands. Now again there is talk of destroying the Barred Owl to help establish a greater population of Spotted Owl into our forest. What exactly has to happen before this ruse is seen through? The entire Spotted Owl debacle is intended to take control of public lands away from the industries that benefit man and lock them away. The environmentalist tree huger crowd are simply pawns who are manipulated into doing the leg work at protests and terrorist acts against timber industry. This originates far from here maybe in Washington DC maybe in New York at the UN building. No matter where it originates it goes hand in hand with the goals of the World Government Pretenders at the United Nations, is supported by the Obama administration and the democrat party. This whole issue fits nicely into the intent of what has come to be known as "Agenda 21". Government has become a cancer on our society. Instead of operating within the limits outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution government has become so big and powerful it makes it's owl rules. It seems that no longer is the purpose of government to protect natural born rights of Americans. We whose lives revolve around the timber industry and the other trades that depend on the use of natural resources are a casualty of this new world order. All of the benefits to mankind by the use of the most renewable resource (our forests) will soon be lost to bureaucracy. Tied away under thousands of use laws that originate not from a scientific basis but instead by those who use the pen to defeat American freedoms and values.

farmrdave

Posted Wed, Dec 12, 9:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Who sent you to post a psychotic rant here? Are we supposed to take you seriously? "Spotted Owl ...main habitat is Central America"! "Government has become a cancer on our society."

You don't have a clue about NSO biology, let alone NW natural resource politics. Here's a counter trope for you: Move to Somalia; you won't have any government bothering you.

Please go away.

louploup

Posted Wed, Dec 12, 11:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting article. Crosscut readers might be interested to know that one of the most important and impressive big-tree forests remaining in Washington state, at Bumping Lake east of Mt. Rainier, is under imminent threat. The forests at Bumping are one of just a handful of places where real, true ancient forest survives on productive, low elevation, flat ground. Most surviving old forest is on steep mountainsides, or at high elevations. Scabland, basically, or at least leftovers. Not so with Bumping, which is prime real estate.

Those forests won't be around much longer if the "Yakima Integrated Plan" goes ahead, with its new dam at Bumping which will drown all of it. They will be sacrificed because Yakima valley agribusiness is not interested in water conservation, only in getting the taxpayers to supply them with yet more free water, water in addition to that from the five large reservoirs that already supply them.

The pricetag for all this is around five billion dollars, billion with a "B." But Yakima agribusiness is used to getting what it wants, and having the rest of us pay for it. This time the price won't just be billions of dollars, it will be the forests at Bumping too. Go see them while they are still there. I hope Crosscut will take a look at the fate of these very unusual forests.

Posted Tue, Dec 18, 1:03 p.m. Inappropriate

In the spirit of preservation and spotted owl habitat, I would personally love it if Crosscut could address the proposed destruction of Bumping Lake as part of the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Management Plan. I've read several articles that appear pro-Plan - it does have good goals - but read nothing that sheds light on what the trade-offs are. Several billion-dollar taxpayer-funded dams are on the docket, and the one at Bumping would inundate and destroy 1500 acres of ancient, unlogged forest that provide habitat for Spotted Owls, as well as trails, campgrounds, cabins and a boathouse. It's a historical area that is unmatched in Eastern Washington, and there has been no mention of this potential atrocity. Look into it, Crosscut!

Maize

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