The Bush administration proposes cutting 1.5 million acres from Northwest forests considered critical to the survival of the northern spotted owl.
The move could reopen the 1990s debate over timber production on public lands, in which logging companies argued that efforts to save the owl contributed to the Northwest timber industry's decline.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Tuesday to reduce the critical habitat for the owl from 6.9 million acres of federal lands by 22 percent, to 5.4 million acres.
"One of the most upsetting things about this proposal is that the spotted owl wars of the '90s had simmered down quite a bit, and a kind of balance had been reached regarding logging and old growth forests," said Kieran Suckling, policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group in Tucson, Ariz.
The new proposal "sets the stage for reopening those wounds," he said.
The owl was declared a threatened species in 1990 due primarily to heavy logging in the old growth forests where it nests and feeds. While old growth forests suitable for owl habitat have increased, owl numbers have continued to decline, recent research shows. The spotted owl faces a new threat from a cousin, the barred owl, that has been invading its territory.
Final decision in 2008
The proposal was a result of a settlement in a lawsuit brought by the timber industry. A final decision is due by June 1, 2008.
Among places removed are the Fort Lewis military base in Washington state and national forest areas designated as wilderness since 1992. The service did not evaluate whether the proposal includes more or fewer areas known as late successional reserves, where most logging is prohibited to protect owl and salmon habitat.
Critical habitat does not by itself bar logging, but it does require federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to see whether a specific project, such as a timber sale, would jeopardize the recovery of an endangered species.
The Bush administration's efforts to boost Northwest timber production have been stymied by court rulings, including several that tossed out plans to log in critical owl habitat.
The proposal is based on a new draft recovery plan that designates areas critical to the owl's recovery and calls for killing some barred owls that have taken over spotted owl habitat, the Fish and Wildlife Service said. It depends on better technology to map forests favored by owls and better understanding of what land the owls favor.
"This is not an effort to get out the (timber) cut," said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Joan Jewett. "This is an effort to identify where forest areas are most important to the conservation and recovery of the spotted owl."
But Dominick DellaSala, director of the National Center for Conservation and Policy and a member of the spotted owl recovery team, said the changes are designed to increase timber production.
He noted that some of the biggest pieces of critical habitat removed from the new proposal are on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in western Oregon, where the agency is working on a major new plan to boost production.
Industry wants smaller areas
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, the timber group that sued the administration, said the groups' initial analysis was that the critical habitat areas should be even smaller.
"The critical habitat should have a link to where the owls are and what the greatest threat is," West said. "The greatest threat is the barred owl, not the loss of mature forest habitat."
He said environmentalists are using the owl as a surrogate to protect old growth forests, "instead of focusing on what the owl needs to survive."
The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan cut timber production on national forests in Washington, Oregon and Northern California by more than 80 percent to protect owl and salmon habitat, contributing to mill closures and job losses that were particularly painful in rural areas with no other industry. The plan served as a de facto recovery plan until a new one was drafted this year.
Since then, the Northwest economy has turned to other industries, particularly high-tech, retirement and tourism, but some rural areas continue to struggle.