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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.
The Bush administration settled another suit under terms that required a formal recovery plan. This time, the administration did cook the science. It assembled a team to draft a recovery plan in very short order, and gave the members such a short timeline that they had to ignore the science of the past 15 years. Working with what they had, the team members identified three main threats: past habitat loss, current habitat loss, and the barred owl invasion. Then they were told from on high that they'd better decouple the owl recovery plan from the Northwest Forest Plan, produce a second option — and identify the barred owl as the main threat. This plan would not emphasize — and would barely discuss — the importance of habitat loss.
In fact, recovery team member Dominick DellaSala told the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, in the fall of 2007, a "memo directed the recovery team to 'indicate [the barred owl] was [the] only threat given priority number one ... and summarize the habitat threats discussion into less than a page.'"
It soon became clear, however, that no court would uphold the new recovery plan. Peer reviewers ripped it to shreds. “An investigative report issued by the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior on Dec. 15, 2008 concluded that former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald, acting alone or in concert with other Department of the Interior officials, took actions that potentially jeopardized the decisional process in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan for the northern spotted owl," the Obama administration subsequently told a somewhat astonished federal judge.
The Inspector General reported, “MacDonald's zeal to advance her agenda has caused considerable harm to the integrity of the [Endangered Species Act] program and to the morale and reputation of the [Fish and Wildlife Service], as well as potential harm to individual species. Her heavy-handedness has cast doubt on nearly every ESA decision issued during her tenure.”
The report also pointed accusatory fingers at other officials, including Randal Bowman, “Office of the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, who held the position and authority to advance the unwritten policy to exclude as many areas as practicable from Critical Habitat Determinations.”
Even before the report came out, the Bush administration obviously realized that the recovery plan was tainted. It convened a committee to come up with a revised plan. Even the new, improved version failed miserably in the arena of peer review. Three organizations, the Wildlife Society, the Society for Conservation Biology (North American Section) and the American Ornithologists’ Union, blasted it. "Although the Final Plan omits the most heavily criticized misrepresentations of owl biology and habitat relationships contained in the Draft Plan," the last two groups wrote, "it retains many of the management guidelines derived from them."
The FWS then produced a critical habitat designation based on the recovery plan. It embraced some 5.3 million acres, a lot of trees, but nearly 2 million acres less than the area at least nominally protected by Clinton’s Forest Plan.
The Bush people also tried to exempt BLM land in southern Oregon and northern California from logging restrictions. On the last day of 2008 — Bush's last full year in office — the Bureau of Land Management adopted the Western Oregon Plan Revision (abbreviated as WOPR and pronounced “whopper”), which was designed to change the rules for 2.6 million acres of forest that the BLM manages in western Oregon. Environmentalists argued that by drastically reducing owl habitat, WOPR would cut the legs out from under the Northwest Forest Plan. WOPR “undermines” the whole Forest Plan, Earthjustice attorney Kristin Boyles said at the time.
The Obama administration has signaled that it won't resurrect WOPR. While one court ruled that it couldn't just abandon the plan, another ruled last year that the plan itself was illegal. In its original form, WOPR isn't coming back. But the desire to pump more timber dollars into county economies hasn't cooled, and politicians have pursued that goal by somewhat different means. Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio and two colleagues, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader, proposed putting 1.2 million acres of that BLM land into a logging trust, that could generate money for counties and schools. That legislation went nowhere, as did a somewhat more ambitious — and quixotic — scheme by Washington U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., that would have increased the cut on all the nation's national forests 15-fold.
The idea that the Oregon and California Lands Act of 1937 requires a certain level of logging on BLM land in southern Oregon and northern California has been shot down by the 9th Circuit. But the idea that the economic welfare of counties in southern Oregon and northern California is an object of forest management on that BLM land is firmly enshrined in the law. And efforts to squeeze more money out of the forests won't stop. In that sense, says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Portland office of the Center for Biological Diversity, "WOPR continues."
An industry group challenged the habitat designation in the District of Columbia's U.S. District Court, and conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, intervened. The government had a lousy case, and rather than defending the indefensible, a few months after the Obama administration took office, it asked the court to let it remand the plan and the habitat designation to the Fish and Wildlife Service for another try. Results were the recovery plan adopted last year and the new critical habitat rule.
Whatever the big-picture rules say, the actual fate of the forests, and of their inhabitants, will depend on the plans for and management of individual forests. There, some critics see cause for concern.
DellaSala, who is currently president of the Society for Conservation Biology's North America Section, points to the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which has suggested that new science will preclude any need for designating late successional reserves.
Both the Bush recovery plan and the Obama version call for plenty of “active management” within that designated habitat. Translated, that means thinning to reduce fire danger, to promote forest health — and to create jobs in the woods. Virtually no one denies that reducing fuel loads around buildings — whether or not those buildings should ever have been built in fire-prone locations — is a good idea. But thinning has traditionally been used as a pretext for letting chain saws into areas from which they would otherwise be barred. And even if it’s not used to bend the rules, no research shows that thinning benefits owls. Some scientists also doubt that reducing fuel loads through thinning and prescribed burns ultimately prevents the really big fires that dominate people’s thoughts.) “There’s a lot we don’t know about this issue,” DellaSala says. “But they’re logging first and asking questions later.”
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