Spotted owl plan repeats mistakes, ignores science

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Twenty years after the spotted owl was listed as an endangered species, the management of federal forests in the West is in disarray. In Washington state alone, the timber harvest on federal land has been shut down by 98 percent, taking jobs from tens of thousands of people and disrupting the economy in rural communities across the state. Instead of smart management to thin our federal forests and keep them healthy, they are left virtually untouched and vulnerable to disease, insect infestations and catastrophic wildfires.

On top of all this, the number of spotted owls has steeply declined in the last two decades. Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s new draft recovery plan for the spotted owl makes the same mistakes of the past.

In the draft plan, which is currently being finalized, the federal government once again overreaches in an attempt to tie up the use of more forestland. It expands responsibility for spotted owl recovery from publicly owned lands onto private lands, without science to show this approach will do any good. The plan doesn’t give credit for conservation efforts already made on millions of acres of state and private land for the spotted owl. This would inflict even more pain on fragile rural economies and the timber industry that supports them.

The federal plan puts politics over the latest science. The science shows that taking more forestland out of production is not the way to save the spotted owl. Even environmental groups, such as the Wildlife Society and the Society for Conservation Biology, have said the science behind the plan is not complete yet. Instead, the primary reasons why spotted owls are still in decline are the invasion of a more dominant species, the barred owl, and a lack of management of federal forests, which causes increased disease, insect infestations and fire.

The 100-year Northwest Forest Plan, approved in 1994, has been largely successful in protecting old-growth forests. But it’s never been fully implemented. The amount of timber harvested since the Forest Plan’s adoption has only been about a third of what was expected under the plan.

Few remedies for invader

The federal government has not implemented the adaptive management portion of the Forest Plan, which includes selective thinning to reduce problems caused by disease, insects and forest fires and could make the spotted owl more resilient to the barred owl invasion. The health of the forests and the spotted owl have suffered greatly for this lack of management.

The barred owl, which has naturally migrated from the East through Canada, is forcing spotted owls out of their habitat and beating them for food and nesting sites. In the Olympic National Park, for example, the first barred owl was recorded in 1985 and detections have steadily increased so much that the barred owl has now taken over two-thirds of the spotted owl sites in the park.

The federal government in its draft spotted owl plan acknowledges the barred owl threat but offers few remedies and instead presents the taking of more forestland as the primary solution to saving the spotted owl.

Twenty years ago, our country made a huge investment to protect an endangered species in a solution that was never fully implemented. By rushing past solutions to the real problems caused by the barred owl and mismanagement, our federal forests will continue to be left in a state that is increasingly decimated by fire, insects and disease and inhospitable to the species we are trying to save. Releasing a new spotted owl recovery plan before current science is in would be more of the same, only extended to private lands as well.

Rather than continuing this failed approach, the new recovery plan should be an opportunity to incorporate the latest science and focus on the most pressing threats with an aggressive strategy to minimize the impact of the barred owl. Our forests — and the spotted owl — can’t afford anything less.

Mark Doumit, a former state senator from Cathlamet, is executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association (www.wfpa.org), based in Olympia.