In a win for the timber industry, “critical habitat” designated for the threatened northern spotted owl will shrink significantly — by about 3.5 million acres — in the Pacific Northwest.
The decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comes after Lewis, Skamania and Klickitat counties teamed up with a lumber lobbying group, the American Forest Resource Council, in an attempt to chip away at the designation.
“The takeaway is that we got most of what we asked for,” Lewis County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Eric Eisenberg said Thursday.
The decision to exclude 3.5 million acres stands in contrast to what USFWS proposed back in August to remove about 200,000 acres from the 9.5 million acre designation scattered across the West Coast. The shift, which comes after hundreds of public comments, is likely to spark legal challenges from environmental groups, according to news reports.
The new designation is in response to years of litigation by the three counties, as well as several lumber companies, which ended in USFWS agreeing to revise the area.
In December, after a 12-month study, USFWS announced that the species was eligible to be uplisted from “threatened” to “endangered.” Since it was first listed under the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s, populations have declined more than 70 percent. USFWS declined to uplist the species, citing “higher priority actions,” and again sparking lawsuits.
In their decision to reduce protected habitat, USFWS said the new, smaller designation won’t lead to the extinction of the northern spotted owl, and that the benefits of excluding the 3.5 million acres outweigh the costs. The agency said that when they revised the area in 2012, no acres were excluded based on economic impact.
“However, we have reconsidered those incremental economic impacts in light of our commitment to our Tribal, State, and local government partners and give weight to the needs of the local tax and economic base as well as the custom and culture of the citizens most impacted by a critical habitat designation in addition to updated information that suggests that economic benefits could accrue,” the agency’s new rule reads.
Those economic impacts, Lewis County officials say, are massive. The county’s comments, submitted to USFWS in conjunction with Skamania and Klickitat counties, cite “catastrophic economic impacts on the counties.”
The comment estimates economic losses between $66 million and $77 million annually, and describes the decline of the counties’ timber industry since the 1990s.
“Lewis County has lost eight mills, and per capita and total personal income since 1990 has lagged behind the state and nation. In 1990, in Skamania County, there were four full-time mills running multiple shifts. The County has since lost all but one mill,” the comment reads. “With three ensuing critical habitat designations, the Counties’ tax base and timber employment levels have continued to erode.”
The decline of timber revenue in the state has been felt acutely in Lewis County — home of the Onalaska Loggers, Morton Timberwolves and the “granddaddy of all logging shows” — where communities have historically relied on the industry.
In a November letter to the editor, now-County Commissioner Lindsey Pollock described a “weaponized version” of science that crushed local economies and put “the last nail in the coffin of our timber towns.”
In the counties’ comments, they also argued that much of the forests in the critical habitat designation are too young to be favorable habitat, and that few northern spotted owls have been documented in those areas. On Wednesday, the American Forest Resource Council commended the decision.
“The status quo has not only failed the (northern spotted owl), misguided federal policies have devastated rural communities and businesses that depend on the forest,” President Travis Joseph said in a press release. “This rule rights a wrong imposed on rural communities and businesses, and gives us a chance to restore balance to federal forest management and species conservation in the Pacific Northwest.”
USFWS seemed to agree with the organization’s argument that releasing more land could allow for more forest management meant to prevent major wildfires, like the ones that ravaged Oregon this summer.
“We also agree that good management of the Forest Service lands may provide additional environmental benefits including possibly reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” the rule reads. “For example, we recognize that having more lands in the potential timber harvest base may permit the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to allow longer cycles between timber harvests.”
The USFWS also said that land no longer designated as critical habitat could still aid the recovery of the species, and that the biggest threat currently facing northern spotted owls is the invasive barred owl. To combat the non-native competitor, the agency has extended their “Barred Owl Removal Experiment,” which started in 2013 and has killed more than 3,000 barred owls, until August.
According to Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan Meyer, several regulations are still in place that limit the county’s ability to harvest timber.
“It doesn’t just throw open the gates … you can’t just go in and clear cut it and kind of shrug your shoulders,” he said. “But this was certainly a major impediment, and one that the county felt was not properly applied to the designated land.”