Bush Flips Off Spotted Owls (and the Rest of Us)

How important are owls in the scheme of things? How important are forests? What do most Americans know about forests?

The answer to the last question is that most Americans think that the majority of forests are managed by the Forest Service or the Park Service. Most Americans also think that those forests are protected from logging.

Both answers are wrong. About 60 percent of the nation's forests are privately owned, and only a small percentage of forests on public land are protected from logging. In the Pacific Northwest, only about 15 percent of the original, native old-growth forest remains. Many people remember the battles over the last of big trees that took place in the 1980s and 90s, and assume that the treehuggers won and the old-growth forests are protected. They would be wrong about that too.

In 1993, a few months after Bill Clinton took office, he initiated the Northwest Forest Plan. That plan settled a lawsuit over the northern spotted owl by setting aside habitat for the owl. But it did not protect all of the remaining old-growth trees and it did not protect anything permanently. It was an administrative solution, vulnerable to the kind of underhanded, undermining tactics so typical of the Bush administration.

A few years ago, replicating a now widely used tactic, a group of timber companies sued the federal government over the spotted owl. Shedding crocodile tears of concern for the owl, whose numbers continue to decline, they claimed that the Northwest Forest Plan was at fault and that the US Fish and Wildlife Service needed to come up with a new species recovery plan. The result of that suit was a new critical habitat proposal, released on June 12, which actually reduces protected owl habitat by 23 percent - about 1.6 million acres.

The best owl habitat is forest with the biggest, oldest, most valuable trees. Could it be a coincidence that a Bush administration owl-recovery plan ends up making more trees available to timber companies?

I spoke with Dominick DellaSala, a scientist with the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, who served on the Fish and Wildlife Service's owl-recovery plan committee. DellaSala testified to the House Natural Resources Committee at a May 9 hearing on "Endangered Species Implementation: Science or Politics?" about political interference in the recovery plan committee's work.

To start with, a committee that works on an endangered-species recovery plan is usually composed of scientific experts on that species, he said. In this case, only three out of the twelve committee members were biologists, and only one of those, a timber industry scientist, was a recognized owl expert.

Even so, the committee recommended a recovery strategy for the owl based on the Northwest Forest Plan, recognizing that the NWFP was itself based on the results of years of study showing that the owls' No. 1 need is for untouched old-growth forests. To make up for its deficiency in scientific expertise, the committee asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service to provide a structure for scientific peer review of their findings. Their request was denied. Instead of peer review, they got a political hack job.

Soon after submitting their recommendations, the owl-recovery committee was told that their plan would be scrutinized by a "Washington DC Oversight Committee," consisting of high-ranking officials from the departments of Agriculture and Interior. One of the members of this oversight committee was Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Julie McDonald.

McDonald quit under fire on April 30, just before the House Resources Committee oversight hearing. An Interior Department Inspector General report had accused her of manipulating data on endangered species to produce results that would be more convenient for developers, miners, ranchers and loggers.

Once the DC oversight committee got involved in the spotted owl plan, scientific principles became a lost cause. The first thing that happened, according to DellaSala, was an instruction to "flip and switch" the presentation of threats to the spotted owl. Instead of emphasizing the need to protect the owl's habitat, the recovery plan was to emphasize the threat of competition from an invasive species, the barred owl.

The barred owl is a recent transplant from the East Coast that is out-competing spotted owls in some areas. These interlopers are clearly a threat to spotted owls; the solution is not to reduce the protected habitat, but rather to increase it. Doug Heiken of the conservation group Oregon Wild put it this way: "If the in-laws move in with you, you don't make the house smaller; you make it bigger."

As DellaSala describes it, the process went from bad to worse with repeated memos coming down from DC, instructing the recovery committee to produce an alternative "less focused on habitat preservation," and above all, to sever all connections between the new recovery plan and the current recovery plan in place, which is the Northwest Forest Plan.

Ever since Bush took office, the timber industry has had its guns out for the Northwest Forest Plan. Their strategy is to take their new owl recovery plan and substitute it for the Northwest Forest Plan in major forest plan revisions coming up for both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. They are using the poor owl itself as the key to open the door to new old-growth timber sales.

It is time for Congress to step into this situation. Through the House Resources Committee hearings, Congress members have been made aware that the US Fish and Wildlife Service's new owl recovery plan is really an owl endangerment plan.

If the owl does survive, it will be because what little remains of its habitat has been preserved. Owls and forests are important for our well-being in many ways, but there is a new concern that Congress must consider now and that is global warming. Globally, deforestation accounts for around 25 percent of all carbon emissions. That's more than the entire transportation sector.

Keeping an old-growth forest intact is like keeping coal and oil in the ground. Protecting native, unlogged forests is an urgent but almost completely neglected solution to global warming.

The Democratic Congress has so far failed to either end the war in Iraq or come up with an effective legislative package to tackle the energy crisis and global warming. Maybe the Democrats should give protecting the last ancient forest of the Pacific Northwest a try.

The Democrats badly need a victory right now, and so do the owls.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting your comments until August 24 at NSOplan@fws.gov.

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