By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The U.S. Forest Service must study competition between threatened spotted owls and barred owls before proceeding with a timber project in an Oregon national forest.
A federal judge has blocked logging on more than 2,000 acres in the Willamette National Forest, including about 450 acres of spotted owl habitat that would have been removed or downgraded.
Two environmental groups — Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild — filed a legal complaint against the “Goose Project” last year. The Freres Lumber Co. and Seneca Sawmill Co. intervened as defendants in the case.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken has rejected most of the environmentalists’ arguments but agreed that several factors “raise a substantial question as to whether the Goose Project may significantly affect the environment.”
The ruling notes that the Forest Service acknowledged uncertainties about the project’s effects, such as the role of habitat fragmentation has in the rivalry between spotted owls and barred owls.
Barred owls are considered more aggressive and adaptable than spotted owls, allowing them to dominate resources.
Aiken also agreed with environmentalists that reducing the size of a potential wilderness area, building a permanent road and logging in riparian areas are also “significant consequences.”
“The court recognizes the deference afforded to an agency, and when considered individually, none of these significance factors might require an EIS,” she said. “However, when considered collectively, they do.”
Scott Horngren, attorney for the sawmills, said he’s troubled by the implication that competition between the two owls points to the need for a more comprehensive review.
“Arguably, this means every timber sale in the Northwest Forest Plan area has to have an EIS,” he said.
Environmental groups could point to the ruling and argue that other projects must undergo an EIS, rather than a more concise environmental assessment, Horngren said.
The Forest Service already looked at the barred owl issue in such an assessment and found there’s scant evidence that timber harvests cause the birds to compete either more or less aggressively, he said.
The EIS will likely come to the same conclusions, but will delay the timber project by up to a year and use up agency resources, Horngren said. “That seems wasteful and unnecessary.”
Bob Ferris, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands, called that a “disingenuous” characterization, because the government may propose an alternative that’s more palatable for environmental groups and the local community.
“The EIS may facilitate something that is more agreeable than the EA,” he said.
The group is concerned about barred owls because the spotted owl population hasn’t recovered despite habitat protections provided by the Northwest Forest Plan, Ferris said.
“We’re still seeing downward trends,” he said.