California spotted owls’ heads must be spinning. Two years ago, the owls were declining so precipitously that the U.S. Forest Service adopted a landmark plan to protect them throughout the Sierra Nevada. The Clinton-era Sierra Nevada Framework balanced logging with habitat protection for owls and other sensitive species (HCN, 8/27/01: Restoring the Range of Light).
When Forest Service officials released the Framework in January 2001, they touted it as “the best decision” to restore watersheds and old-growth forests across the entire Sierra. Now, Jack Blackwell, the new head of the Forest Service in California, says it is unworkable and too weighted toward wildlife concerns. Without more logging, he says, forests are in danger of a “fiery holocaust.”
In March, Blackwell recommended changing the plan to allow loggers to cut 450 million board-feet of timber a year — more than double the 191 million board-feet allowed in the 2001 Framework.
A month before Blackwell accepted those recommendations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the owl, a subspecies related to the northern and Mexican spotted owl, does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. That decision was based in part on the safeguards provided for the bird by the 2001 Framework.
For the owl, the back-to-back federal decisions are a catch-22: The Fish and Wildlife Service denied it endangered species status because the Framework protected the bird, yet the agency’s refusal to list the owl as endangered gave the Forest Service the liberty to loosen many of its protections.
“Together, they have put owls dramatically in harm’s way,” says Craig Thomas, conservation director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, one of the groups that filed the petition to list the owl.
Increasing the cut is only the beginning of the changes Blackwell wants to make to the Sierra Nevada Framework. His recommendation would allow loggers to cut trees up to 30 inches in diameter, up from a 20-inch maximum, and loosen the previous guidelines allowing only “dead and black” trees to be harvested in post-fire salvage sales. The new recommendations also call for thinning more trees with chain saws rather than prescribed burns.
Blackwell says many of the changes were suggested by field personnel who found the original regulations unworkable. To reduce forest fuels, the Framework more than doubled the acreage district rangers were required to burn, says Tahoe Forest Supervisor Steve Eubanks. Yet opportunities for prescribed burning are limited by winds, temperature, air-quality regulations and public objection to smoke.
Eubanks adds that the Framework’s limits on cutting trees over 20 inches in diameter created a funding problem. In the past, the revenue from selling large trees to private timber contractors paid for removing small trees from the forest — trees that pose the greatest fire hazard but are worthless as lumber. The Framework’s restrictions on cutting more valuable, large-diameter trees left the agency with no way to pay for the small-diameter thinning.
“If we can’t cut the big trees, the taxpayers pay the difference,” says Eubanks.
Owls’ future in question
If approved, Blackwell’s recommendations would leave the California spotted owl under a cloud of uncertainty, says Jared Verner, a retired Forest Service scientist who worked on the original owl study for the Sierra Nevada Framework. Studies he and others conducted for more than a decade found owl populations stable in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, where logging is prohibited. In national forests, however, estimates two years ago put the population decline across the Sierra as high as 11 percent a year.
That study may have underestimated owl populations, says Verner, but a new model used in the recent yearlong review may overestimate them. An independent team of scientists hired by the Forest Service to evaluate owl populations found an average mean decline of between 2 and 4 percent. Anything below 5 percent is considered statistically insignificant.
In deciding not to list the California spotted owl, Fish and Wildlife officials said the scientific data are too uncertain to justify endangered species status. “We found no clear statistical evidence to show that the California spotted owl is declining throughout its range,” says Steve Thompson, manager of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s California-Nevada operations office.
Barry Noon, a Colorado State University professor who has studied the California spotted owl for 13 years and who worked on the most recent review, disagrees. “Scientific uncertainty cuts both ways, but only one side of the equation has been discussed,” he says. “I think the evidence suggests that a listing is appropriate.”
If the Forest Service’s proposed changes take effect, the Fish and Wildlife Service could again consider the owl for an endangered species listing. But because the agency’s California office is facing a backlog of candidate species for protection, Thompson says it would most likely take a lawsuit to spur a second look.
In the meantime, California State Resources Secretary Mary Nichols says allowing more aggressive cutting of large trees is “a recipe for a listing of the owl, resulting in renewed conflict, litigation and gridlock.”
The Forest Service is scheduled to publish a supplemental environmental report in May. The public can comment on it through August, with a final decision expected in the fall.
The author is a freelance journalist based in Plumas County, California.
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