“Interior Strips Protections for Spotted Owl”.. How Worried Should We Be?

FWS Decision: It seems to me that for the owl to be hurt, the BLM or the FS would have to propose, and actually do something on the ground with owl impacts. How likely is that in a Biden Administration?

From the New York Times:

Trump Opens Habitat of a Threatened Owl to Timber Harvesting
Going far beyond expectations, the Trump administration eliminated protection from more than three million acres of northern spotted owl habitat in the Pacific Northwest.

The plan, issued by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, grew out of a legal settlement with a lumber association that had sued the government in 2013 over 9.5 million acres that the agency designated as essential to the survival of the northern spotted owl. The federal protections restricted much of the land from timber harvesting, which companies claimed would lead to calamitous economic losses.

But rather than trim about 200,000 acres of critical habitat in Oregon, as the agency initially proposed in August, the new plan will eliminate protections from 3.4 million acres across Washington, California and Oregon. What is left will mostly be land that is protected for reasons beyond the spotted owl.

“These common-sense revisions ensure we are continuing to recover the northern spotted owl while being a good neighbor to rural communities within the critical habitat,” Aurelia Skipwith, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement.

Wildlife biologists expressed shock at the decision.

“I’ve gotten several calls from wildlife biologists who are in tears who said, ‘Did you know this is happening? The bird won’t survive this,’” said Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, a conservation group that advocates on behalf of the northern spotted owl.

From Roll Call:

The Interior Department said it will eliminate from federal protection more than 3 million acres of land in California, Oregon and Washington vital to the northern spotted owl, a species considered endangered under federal law.

In a draft rule published Wednesday as much of the nation was glued to impeachment proceedings, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of Interior, said it was excluding about 3.5 million acres of “critical habitat” established for the owls. Environmental groups warned that the move could spell the extinction of the species and immediately threatened lawsuits to block the action.

There’s a new Administration next week, whom we can imagine won’t want to “clearcut the last remaining fragments of old growth land.”

“Here in southern Oregon this is a death sentence for owls,” said George Sexton, conservation director for Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. “This decision is intended to speed the clearcutting of the last remaining fragments of old-growth forests on Bureau of Land Management public lands.”

In the spirit of journalism analysis, I note that the Times story has a paragraph about the timber industry, and the Roll Call story has none. And yet, any projects proposed will be in a Biden administration or thereafter. I understand that writers can’t understand all the steps before a project is approved, but they could interview people who do.

21 thoughts on ““Interior Strips Protections for Spotted Owl”.. How Worried Should We Be?”

  1. This seems a very odd way of framing the issue, Sharon. Does your pollyannish deference to federal decision makers know no bounds?

      • Yes.

        FWS acknowledged that the NSO warrants uplisting but essentially admitted that they lack the capacity/resources to complete that work. Instead, they removed protections from >1/3 of the species’ existing critical habitat. There are some obvious links missing in this logical chain.

        You seem to assert that NEPA, a “paper tiger” procedural statute, is adequate to protect against short-sighted land management decisions at the project level. There is little evidence to support that view. Unlike NEPA the ESA actually has teeth and was specifically designed to protect imperiled species. It ought to be used for it’s intended purpose.

        • No, I didn’t say that. I was simply saying that BLM is part of the Executive Branch and that timber projects that would be allowed under the new Trump regulation could easily not be allowed if the Biden Admin didn’t want to allow them. It seems that the new rule is permissive (allowing people to propose projects) not forcing people to propose projects in the habitat.

          Now Susan’s point is a different point, that the new Admin might ultimately agree with this decision and allow those kinds of projects. She definitely knows more about it than I do. I am going by rhetoric of groups that usually have influence in D administrations. Time will tell which of us is correct.

  2. It is highly possible that timber harvest will occur in occupied spotted owl critical habitat under the Biden administration: it has occurred under ALL political administrations in the past, so why not this one?

    There are plenty of timber sales on the books now that do not need any additional approval by the Biden administration to go forward.

    In particular, the BLM is actively clearcutting (yes, removing ALL trees from a harvest unit) occupied owl habitat. In one project currently under litigation (happy to share the filings), the BLM has proposed to log 9,000 acres of suitable, occupied habitat, including about 4,800 acres of (what used to be) critical habitat. FWS has said that no currently extant owls will exist in the planning area by the end of the project, and that owls will not have suitable habitat in that planning area for 120 years, and yet failed to call jeopardy or adverse modification.

    This about a bird that didn’t reproduce at all in 2017 in southern Oregon, is functionally extinct in Canada, and that 2 weeks ago FWS said uplisting to Endangered was warranted “but precluded” by higher priority listing needs.

    • Even though I was an occasional timber beast (as well as a surveyor for protected birds), this harvesting seems very shortsighted. Certainly, there are many nesting sites that we don’t know about, and also have no protections. It is one thing to survey for occupancy, and it is another thing to locate actual nesting sites. I don’t know the answer to that issue but, we can probably be sure that some actual nest trees will get cut, if this idea goes into action.

      It also seems like the California Spotted Owl gets ‘better’ protections than the NSO, even though CASPO is not “Endangered”. It seems like the Northwest Forest Plan needs an ‘upgrade’, and it looks like it should be the courts’ job to force Agencies to do that. I also think that the courts will side with the plaintiffs. The Trump Administration seems fond of “do it and we’ll see what happens” (meaning that they will see you in court).

    • Thanks, Susan. Can you help me with logic about the process? My specific point was what the New Last Minute Trump Rule means to owls and owl-related projects.

      It seems to me that 1) if a decision has been made, then the fact that it was decided under the old rules means the new rule didn’t affect it, and it can go forward. So these bad decisions are not the fault of the new rule.
      2). It also seems to me that all decisions can be reviewed by the new Admin. When the Roadless Rule was enjoined, we had to have WO approval for all roadless projects, which were only approved if they … followed the enjoined roadless rule! So if Administrations want to be involved in a certain kind of project, I have experience that they can be.

      “In particular, the BLM is actively clearcutting (yes, removing ALL trees from a harvest unit) occupied owl habitat. In one project currently under litigation (happy to share the filings), the BLM has proposed to log 9,000 acres of suitable, occupied habitat, including about 4,800 acres of (what used to be) critical habitat.”

      If something is ongoing and in litigation, clearly it was approved under the old rules. If something is proposed, then it can be stopped before the decision (and even decisions can be overruled, I’ve seen that also).

      Your other point “it has occurred under ALL political administrations in the past, so why not this one?” That’s entirely a different problem than the Trump Admin and their last-minute rule for more than AFRC originally wanted. But that’s not what this story is about. That headline would be “Trump Rule opens door for Biden Admin to log spotted owl habitat” perhaps more accurate but less likely to be published in the NYT?

  3. It’s about time, the spotted owl has decimated the timber industry. We have wild fires constantly largely due to the lack of intelligent forest management. I’m sure these owls will find some suitable trees to nest in.

  4. This rule may very well call in the courts, and the timber harvest program will continue to be an economic loser just like grazing. But I have to chuckle at the mention of biologists crying. The federal land agencies are in desperate need of more practical employees firmly committed first to multiple uses and the government who employs them. It’s time to purge the personal emotional ideologies from these organizations. Cry me the proverbial river, and give me a permit to shoot barred owls. Sharon’s point about changing administrations is spot on. What happens next is not about Trump.

    • Indeed. I honestly cannot imagine what kind of person literally cries over owls. Whoever they are, such people are obviously way too emotionally invested to be making rational and objective land management decisions.

      • But Patrick, maybe that’s the problem.. that we are trying to solve a values/moral conflict with pseudo-technorational (I made up that word) decisions. That’s what Farrell is arguing in his book (see post).

        My point wasn’t that people shouldn’t feel emotional about critters.. and to be fair, the quote from Susan didn’t specify federal wildlife biologists.

        It was more that this particular decision stands little likelihood of being carried out, unless the new Admin supports these activities, as concerns Susan. There’s a concept of “keeping your powder dry” that I think applies here.

  5. multiple use? Federal biologists work with it all the time, but specialists are, by definition, specialists. This is a typical lousy industry-driven decision by this administration that will be a loser in court. The northern spotted owl has been heavily impacted by invading barred owls. They are not doing well. Heavier timber harvest would pile on to the impacts.

  6. Hopefully the impact on the BLM and FS ability to manage their lands will be positive and the affect on the owl minimum. Almost 30 years of protection hasn’t helped the owl much, forest management or rural communities. Maybe its time to try something different. I am afraid the courts will be busy.

  7. Obama was too busy trying to fix Bush’s broken economy and housing market, and dialing back his war machine. The land management agencies did a lot of dumb stuff while Obama was distracted. Biden might be similarly distracted by a pandemic, economic recovery, BLM v white nationalism, and healing all the damaged democratic institutions.

    My point is that a new administration does not reliably prevent the institutional inertia of the Trump admin from continuing to roll along. There are a lot of people in the agencies who are more committed to sustainable production of timber and much less interested in sustainable production of spotted owls, trout, and carbon storage.

    • Hmm. I don’t know that to be the case, 2nd. In my experience, timber people tend to be interested in timber, owl people in owls, watershed people in watershed, fuels people in fuels, and so on. Silviculture people in trying to fit all those things together. Nepa people in nepa and so on. That’s why projects and plans require an ID team. So… it’s federal employees’ fault when there’s a D Admin, and the Prez’s fault when it’s an R admin.

      • Exactly right, Sharon. You don’t think there’s a little history of the Forest Service (not the specialists) fighting D administrations for active management (their professional and fiscal bias) and to get the cut out (under pressure from logging interests in Congress) vs pushing back against R administrations (who demand too much logging but give them less money)?

        • R Administrations don’t actually give them more money, Congress has to do that. I honestly don’t remember anyone in our Region 2 group pushing for “more logging” under the Obama Administration. Except perhaps when the Obama admin asked to increase the pace and scale of restoration. And what is a “fiscal bias”?

          Spurred by Secretary Tom Vilsack’s vision, which emphasized collaboration with stakeholders and restoration of the Nation’s forests, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Forest Service published Increasing the Pace of Restoration and Job Creation on Our National Forests in February 2012.
          The report laid out the need to increase the pace and scale of restoration on national forests to benefit water resources, wildlife, and local communities, as well as identifying a series of actions to help make
          restoration outcomes a reality. This document provides a progress update on the commitments identified in 2012, describes new approaches being implemented in addition to the earlier commitments, and describes the
          important work that remains. https://www.fs.usda.gov/sites/default/files/legacy_files/accelerating-restoration-update-2015-508-compliant.pdf

          • I could imagine that R2 is different from the regions that produce a lot of timber in this regard.

            “Fiscal bias” is the fact that 1) they get more money to do things, than to not do things, and 2) if they do things that return money they may get to keep some of it.

            • Jon, my experience is mostly from observing regional budget discussions, but your 1) seems true of every line item. More $ to do more work is generally good because you can get more desirable work done and you can get it done better with better staff people 🙂 than the neighboring District/Forest/Region.

              Your #2, though, are purchaser credits, BD, KV, and SS really all that much fun to “keep”? It’s just more work, not exactly a slush fund for travel to the National Timber Management Conference in Honolulu in December.

  8. The settlement agreement only required the agency to issue a rule – the content (as always) was up to them. Completely changing a federal rule from what was proposed to the public also creates procedural legal risk.


    Here’s the rationale from the FWS: “This rule revises the 2012 critical habitat designation based upon the Secretary’s determination that the benefits of exclusion of particular areas of critical habitat outweigh the benefits of designation of particular areas of critical habitat based on economic, national security and other relevant impacts. Based upon the best scientific and commercial data available, the Secretary has not concluded that these exclusions will result in extinction of the species.” (Take that, biologists.)

    “These exclusions are based in part on new information that has become available since the December 4, 2012, critical habitat designation for the northern spotted owl (77 FR 71876), including the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act (Pub. L. 115-103), court decisions regarding the future management of O&C lands, and public comments. The exclusions also reflect the new conclusions by the Secretary as to the weight to be accorded to various benefits.” (Surprise.)

    Little of this pertains to national forests. The Forest Service did not take a position on the (much lower) proposed reduction but, “Additionally, we received a comment letter from the Under Secretary, Natural Resources and Environment, Department of Agriculture supporting Interior’s efforts to “right size” the northern spotted owl critical habitat designation because of the difficulties encountered by the Forest Service in achieving its statutory mission for managing the National forests.” (ESA is a “statutory mission,” and unlike O & C lands national forests have no non-discretionary statutory mission to produce timber that would conflict with that.)

    Here’s an interesting response to comments from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

    “Because ESA section 7 consultation will be completed for discretionary Federal actions and decisions where northern spotted owls are present, the additional benefit of ESA section 7 consultation for adverse modification of critical habitat is minimal compared with the environmental benefits of additional forest management.” This is interesting because it would be true for any federal lands for any species.

    To make this case here, they are going to have to demonstrate the “environmental benefits of additional forest management.” But in the next sentence, which attempts to do that, they make a highly questionable assumption.

    “For example, we recognize that having more lands in the potential timber harvest base may permit the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to allow longer cycles between timber harvests. Longer cycles between timber harvests can have many environmental benefits,…” And it may not. The expectation from a larger timber base (certainly from the logging industry any way) is that more timber will be cut, which would completely defeat FWS’ speculative argument.

    (This would be a good candidate for the Congressional Review Act.)


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