Last month the Forest Service tried to take the matter into its own hands. Southwest Regional Forester Chip Cartwright issued an ebullient press release July 12 announcing that chain saws would rev up on July 15. Cartwright said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had approved the agency's amended forest plans because they no longer jeopardized the existence of the Mexican spotted owl, a threatened species.
But three days later, after loggers in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest had already cut 64,000 board feet of timber - about 16 truckloads - Cartwright had to order the chain saws silent again. The Forest Service had forgotten one essential detail: The court, not the agency, has the authority to lift an injunction, and it was Federal Judge Carl Muecke who had ordered the agency to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service, as required by the Endangered Species Act.
"This court is at a loss to understand why defendants would proceed in this fashion in light of the court's prior order ...," Judge Muecke said in a July 16 order reinstating the injunction. Muecke said he wanted to review biological opinions written by the Fish and Wildlife Service before making his decision.
"What in heaven's name were those dunderheads at the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thinking?" bellowed a July 19 Arizona Republic editorial.
Environmentalists also jumped on the agency. "This is the most egregious thing they've done yet," says Peter Galvin, a board member of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity based in Tucson, one of the plaintiffs.
Galvin says the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service have resisted efforts to protect the owl and its forest habitat ever since environmentalists petitioned to list the species in 1989. Most recently, the regional directors of both agencies have admitted altering the recovery plan for the owl after it had already been formally approved. The alteration allowed some logging in steep-sloped and roadless areas (HCN, 3/4/96).
The issue boils down to the region's oldest trees, which provide important feeding and nesting sites for the remaining 2,000 or so owls, as well as other species. Environmentalists say there are so few patches of old-growth forest left in the Southwest that virtually all should be left standing.
The agency's newly amended plans take a step in that direction. In future sales on many forests, loggers won't be allowed to cut trees over 24 inches in diameter, Galvin says. But forest officials maintain that some old trees need to be cut, both to make logging economically viable for timber companies and to improve the condition of the forest.
"Just because it's an old tree doesn't mean it shouldn't be cut," says Pat Jackson, an appeals and litigation coordinator in the Forest Service's regional office in Albuquerque. Cutting only small-diameter trees "is bad forest management," he says. "We grow 800 million board feet of wood per year in this region, but right now we're cutting less than 50 mbf. These people say, "Don't manage it; let it burn up." "
Some of the remaining old trees, which are mostly valuable ponderosa pine, are within the 239 timber sales that have been stalled since the injunction was imposed last August. Jackson says Fish and Wildlife Service biologists assumed that these sales, offered under old forest plans, would be cut when they approved the Forest Service's amended plans.
"That's absolutely ludicrous," says Mark Hughes, an attorney representing the environmentalists. "You can't analyze the effects of cutting while assuming the cutting has already happened." Hughes says the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that logging under the old forest plans would jeopardize the spotted owl. "It's a shell game," he says. "The Forest Service just doesn't want to change."
Galvin says environmentalists don't want to stop all of the old sales; they want them modified to protect owl habitat. "When you only have a few old trees left, you can't sweeten the pot for timber companies by letting them cut those trees," says Galvin.
Judge Muecke has ordered several environmental groups and the U.S. Forest Service to present him with their final legal briefs by Aug. 9
For more information, contact the Southwest Regional Office of the Forest Service at 505/842-3298 or the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity at 520/733-1391.
Paul Larmer is HCN associate editor