From: Michael Milstein, The Oregonian
Published November 22, 2004 12:00 AM

New Federal Ruling on Owls Spurs Industry Interest in Off-Limits Forests

PORTLAND, Ore. − The northern spotted owl still faces enough risk that it warrants continued federal protection more than a decade after efforts to safeguard it forced the collapse of federal lands logging in the Northwest, the U.S. government found.


But the Bush administration ruling released Thursday says the greatest threats appear to be shifting away from habitat destruction to an influx of more aggressive barred owls and diseases such as West Nile Virus.


The timber industry is using the finding to argue that some logging of older forests could resume without harming the spotted owl. Timber groups that sought the review say cutting might even help the owl if it reduces the chance of wildfires or makes stands less hospitable to barred owls.


Depending how the Bush administration proceeds, it might begin a shift away from the strategy of protecting the owl by setting aside old forest in reserves.


Government biologists who review logging projects now must "assess it based on the real risk, not just that a tree might be cut," said Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland.


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"That's the way they have viewed everything -- cutting any trees was bad," he said. "That's not the case anymore."


But federal officials said the review does not mean they will disregard the value of forests where the owls hunt and nest amid giant trees rooted in older stands.


"There's nothing about this that suggests habitat isn't important," said Joan Jewett of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which released the review. "All of the threats will have to be considered."


Environmental groups said the industry arguments are misleading. They argue protection of habitat is more important than ever if the owl is to have a chance against the rising risk of barred owls and disease.


The review says owls almost always favor older forests.


"The industry is trying to say now it's OK to cut old-growth forests, and that's not true," said Susan Ash of the Audubon Society of Portland, one of the groups that went to court to force protection of the bird. "It's critical to protect these forests."


The review released Thursday may also give activist groups a new foothold to challenge logging and other projects. The Endangered Species Act, which applies to the owl, says federal agencies must reconsider such projects if new evidence reveals different effects on species.


If the review's findings are seen as such new evidence, agencies might be required to reexamine past decisions.


A lawsuit challenging salvage of fire-damaged timber in the Deschutes National Forest has already raised the issue, said Rex Holloway of the U.S. Forest Service.


Federal officials are also reviewing the progress of the Northwest Forest Plan, the Clinton administration's decade-old compromise between wildlife and logging demands. It aimed to protect the owl mainly by controlling logging of the bird's habitat, and the review found it clearly helped.


But if new factors are now at work, the government might have to revise the forest plan to address them, Holloway said.


The catch, according to the federal review, is that the threat posed by the barred owl, West Nile Virus and wildfires is hard to measure and may be beyond human control. Federal officials could limit logging, for instance, but may not exercise the same power over other risks such as fire and Sudden Oak Death, an imported disease that infects trees in owl habitat.


For every threat to the owl that has declined since the bird gained federal protection in 1990, another has taken its place, the review found.


"The uncertainty surrounding barred owls, and the new potential disease, fire and Sudden Oak Death threats and their effect on the spotted owl population suggests a net increase in risk since 1990," the review found.


Spotted owls are declining most widely and sharply in Washington state, where competing barred owls arrived first. Barred owls appear to be spreading south into Oregon, where spotted owls are declining in half of six areas studied.


"Given that barred owl populations are rapidly expanding and likely to persist, the duration and severity of the barred owl effect may be greater than habitat removal effects due to management or natural disturbance," the review concluded.


Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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