The Bush Administration said Tuesday that despite the possible demise of the northern spotted owl, logging may proceed as usual in the Northwest until a new task force can devise long-range plans to balance the needs of nature with those of production and profit.
The decision runs against the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel of government scientists, who had recommended putting 3 million additional acres of old-growth forests off-limits to loggers.
The new task force is expected to take another tack. Its goals will be to propose changes in the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws, and to suggest amending the laws to limit public participation in management decisions.
Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter said the interagency task force, which he will chair, will convene immediately and work with key members of Congress to recommend a long-term timber-management plan to President Bush by Sept. 1. Yeutter, who declined to specify the composition of the task force, said he hopes Congress will approve the plan before the end of the current session in early October.
Outraged environmentalists pledged hand-to-hand combat in Congress to stop the proposals.
“The cloak is off George Bush,” said Rich Hoppe of the Wilderness Society, flatly blaming the President for a decision shaped by senior White House staff members. “I don’t think there is any more pretending he is the Environment President.”
Fish and Wildlife Service Director John Turner declared the owl a threatened species last week, but disagreement within the Administration forced Yeutter and Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. to wait until Tuesday to reveal their plans to protect it.
That disagreement never was resolved. On Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service said it will try to fulfill its current logging goals as much as possible within restraints recently suggested by the blue-ribbon scientific panel. But the Bureau of Land Management decided to set logging goals nearly twice as high as that suggested by the panel.
Yeutter and Lujan on Tuesday repeatedly pledged to work for the long-term survival of the owl, but environmentalists were incensed nonetheless, saying the officials were placing business interests over the needs of the owl.
“This confirms our worst suspicions,” said Craig Van Note, executive director of Monitor, a coalition of conservation groups. “The Administration is bowing to the special interests in order to weaken the Endangered Species Act. Once they reopen the law (to consider the interests of) loggers, then shrimp fishermen, dam builders, oil companies and others . . . will seek relief as well.”
Timber interests were encouraged by the unexpected turn of events.
“We’re pleased an attempt is being made by the Administration to strike a balance between owls and humans,” said Barry Polsky of the American Forest Resource Alliance in Washington. But he added: “It is going to be tough to get those proposals through Congress.”
Bill Arthur of the Sierra Club in Seattle said Congress probably will bristle at the idea of being handed such a contentious political problem by an Administration that, Arthur suggested, is looking for someone to share the blame.
“They (Administration officials) sent a clear signal that they just don’t intend to enforce the law, then turned it all over to Congress to take the heat off themselves,” Arthur said. “They kind of handed Congress a rock and told them to swim with it.”
News of the Administration’s decision was received warmly, if warily, in the Northwest.
Inside the sprawling Young & Morgan Inc. plywood factory in Mill City, Ore., workers were encouraged that the government did not take the strictest approach to saving the spotted owl.
“I feel like it’s a victory,” said plant superintendent Jerry Carr. “At least people are listening to us. As long as they are, there’s hope.”
Others in Mill City were not as optimistic.
“I guess my expectations are always too high,” said Tom Hirons, an independent contract logger. “I was looking for some finality to all this.”
Finality, however, may be several more years--and several more lawsuits--in the future.
“Everybody is going to look at this (proposal) with a microscope,” said the Sierra Club’s Arthur. “Since it says so little, it’s hard to say right now ‘We’ll sue’ or ‘We won’t sue.’ ”
Instead, environmentalists will wait and see whether the Fish and Wildlife Service resists pressure to maintain current logging levels at the expense of the owls, of which only 1,700 nesting or breeding pairs are known to remain on federal lands.
Yeutter, who oversees the Forest Service, and Lujan, who oversees the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, are required by the Endangered Species Act to modify logging plans to prevent harm to species found to be threatened with extinction, now including the northern spotted owl.
Temporary guidelines issued with Turner’s announcement Friday restated rules that forbid logging on federal lands in “suitable owl habitat"--within a half-mile of a nest--without permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Such wide preserves are needed because biologists say each nesting pair of owls must have a large expanse of undisturbed old-growth forest to hunt flying squirrels and other small mammals for food. Spotted owls, which grow 16 to 19 inches tall, already are so overcrowded in many places that biologists say the species will decline sharply--by perhaps 60%--regardless of rescue plans employed now.
Recent record timber harvests in the Northwest have included 71,000 acres a year of old-growth, or virgin, forests--more than 2 square miles every week of irreplaceable habitat for such rare species as the spotted owl, pine marten and an unusual weasel-like mammal called a fisher.
Turner said “the most comprehensive scientific inquiry ever made by the Fish and Wildlife Service” found the medium-size, mottled brown owl threatened with extinction throughout its range, which includes the coastal mountains and forests from Canada to San Francisco.
“The biological evidence says that the northern spotted owl is in trouble,” he said. “We will not, and by law cannot, ignore that evidence.”
For interim protection of the owl, Turner recommended that the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management use a recent multiagency scientific report as the basis for managing federal forests until the Fish and Wildlife Service draws up a permanent recovery plan for the bird.
That report, written by six leading federal scientists and named after task force Chairman Jack Ward Thomas of the Forest Service, was released last April.
Forest Service Chief F. Dale Robertson has said publicly--and steadfastly repeated in talks last week with the White House--that he favors the suggestions in that report because he believes they are based on the best available scientific studies. The Endangered Species Act requires agencies to rely on the best available data when dealing with threatened species.
But Lujan and others in the Bush Administration balked at the report’s recommendations because they would set aside millions of acres as owl habitat and prohibit the logging of much of the remaining old-growth timber in the Northwest. A subsequent Forest Service analysis concluded that such actions could cut the harvest on federal lands in the Northwest by half and cost 28,000 timber-related jobs.
Tuesday’s action may affect fewer jobs, but government officials could give no comprehensive estimates.
Many within the Administration favor a more recent proposal by BLM Director Cy Jamison that may allow cutting considerably more timber than allowed under the Thomas report. The BLM would try to preserve owls by setting aside small islands of habitats surrounded by clearcuts, a method that was rejected in the Thomas report as a recipe for extinction of the bird.
Robertson of the Forest Service resisted that proposal as indefensible in court. Environmentalists have threatened to sue if the owl protection plan is not strong enough--as they sued in 1988 when the Reagan Administration successfully pressured the Fish and Wildlife Service to refuse to protect the owl.
The watchdog General Accounting Office criticized the decision against the owl as not based on scientific evidence, and a federal judge eventually ordered the agency to reconsider. Last week’s decision was the result of that reconsideration.