The federal government has removed 17 times more land from the threatened spotted owl’s “critical habitat” than it had originally proposed, likely provoking a court challenge.
Environmentalists and the timber industry expect a legal battle over the Trump administration’s 3.47 million-acre reduction to the owl’s critical habitat, up from the 205,000-acre decrease initially proposed last year.
Critical habitat for federally protected species cannot be adversely modified, even if it’s unoccupied, which is seen as a hindrance to logging on designated acres.
Instead of leaving more than 9 million acres in the owl’s critical habit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decreased it to about 6 million acres by excluding federal lands that were previously allocated for logging.
“It makes sense that would be the focus. It will make forest management a lot simpler to administer,” said Lawson Fite, attorney with the American Forest Resource Council, a timber group. “It really puts things in a more manageable and reasonable space.”
Roughly 80% of national forests are already in reserves where logging is mostly prohibited, whereas the remaining “matrix” lands are intended to be available for timber harvest, Fite said.
However, the earlier 9.5 million-acre critical habitat designation intruded upon those “matrix” lands, impeding logging projects on that acreage, he said.
“You have these conflicting and inconsistent management directives,” Fite said.
Likewise, the federal government’s recent critical habitat designation has excluded Bureau of Land Management property that’s required by law to be managed for sustained timber yields, he said. These forested O&C Lands — Oregon & California Railroad Revested Lands — exist in a checkerboard pattern in Western Oregon.
“The BLM doesn’t have any discretion,” Fite said.
The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that opposes the critical habitat reduction, believes the significant increase in excluded acreage in the final rule will make it vulnerable in court.
“Whatever the agency does, the final rule has to be a logical outgrowth of the proposed rule,” said Ryan Adair Shannon, an attorney with the organization. “What it doesn’t allow for is to come out with a completely different rule, literally an order of magnitude larger than the first.”
The environmental group disagrees that O&C Lands must be managed for “industrial timber” and doesn’t believe critical habitat is incongruous with “matrix” lands in national forests, said Noah Greenwald, its endangered species director.
Logging can still occur within critical habitat if an Endangered Species Act “consultation” occurs over a project’s impacts, he said. “It wouldn’t preclude and hasn’t precluded timber sales from moving forward on those matrix lands.”
While the Center for Biological Diversity argues that reducing the owl’s critical habitat amounts to a “nail in the coffin” for the species, the American Forest Resource Council counters that barred owls, a competing species, and wildfires pose a greater hazard to the iconic bird.
However, the organizations can agree on one thing: The new critical habitat designation will result in litigation.
“I have no doubt it will be challenged,” said Shannon.