WASHINGTON

Washington may log land formerly set aside for the endangered northern spotted owl. In 1997, the state implemented a Habitat Conservation Plan, which allowed the state to log some owl territories if it set aside other land for habitat. As an extra layer of protection, then-Department of Natural Resources Public Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher voluntarily set aside a number of owl "circles," covering up to 14,400 acres each.

Now, her successor, Doug Sutherland, says he will consider logging Belcher's circles to help alleviate the state's budget crunch. He says management of owl circles, which cover 258,000 acres in western Washington, is ineffective.

The decision to open up the circles to logging, the DNR says, is a transition to habitat-wide conservation.

But with spotted owl populations in decline (HCN, 3/12/01: Will logging save the spotted owl?), environmental groups aren't buying the plan.

"Sutherland going in and cutting over the next 10 years is crazy," says Lisa McShane of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. "The new habitat (called for in the conservation plan) doesn't exist yet, and he plans on taking away the current habitat."

McShane is most concerned about nine of the 121 owl circles located in southwest Washington, because there is little viable habitat nearby. Washington Fish and Wildlife biologist Paula Swedeen says that, if those circles are logged, the population in that part of the state could go extinct within 10 years.

The DNR says that each circle will be individually evaluated for sales, and that it will be a year or more before logging begins.