Southwest Washington’s Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler and several Republicans from western states have aligned themselves with Lewis County and the timber industry in pressuring the President Joe Biden administration to move forward in greatly reducing critical habitat for northern spotted owls across the Pacific Northwest.
The policy — announced by the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) earlier this year, but put on hold by the White House — came as a shock to conservationists. Amid declining populations of northern spotted owls, the federal agency announced it would strip away 3.5 million acres protected as critical habitat for the species’ recovery. It was a significant jump from the 200,000 acres the agency originally proposed to exclude.
In their letter last week, Herrera Beutler and eight other Republicans in Congress, including Washington Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, urged Secretary of the Interior Debra Haaland to “immediately implement” the rule, which was originally slated to go into effect March 16.
It was later delayed by the Biden administration until this Thursday, April 15.
The coalition noted the same economic concerns voiced by Lewis County and its neighbors: that designating land as critical habitat for the species stifles timber harvests and has ripple effects in rural communities. The lawmakers pointed to “nearly a decade of lost opportunities” due to northern spotted owl protections, writing that protecting land where northern spotted owls aren’t currently living is unlawful and “does nothing for conservation but inflicts direct harm on rural communities.”
But conservationists — a coalition of which is also suing the administration to prevent the rule from going into effect — argue that the sudden reduction in protected land defies logic, with some calling it a last-minute gift by the Trump administration to the timber industry. Last year, USFWS concluded that, due to declining populations, northern spotted owls were eligible to be uplisted to “endangered” status, but declined to do so.
In a February letter to Department of the Interior Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt, a Democratic coalition of lawmakers similarly called the decision by USFWS “as bewildering as it is damaging,” saying it “fit a larger pattern of malfeasance by the Trump administration’s political leadership at the Department of Interior.”
Herrera Beutler and fellow congressional Republicans shot back in their own letter.
“A few members of Congress have questioned the legality of changes that were made between the proposed rule and what was finalized in January,” they wrote. “These claims are not supported by the facts.”
They added that the Secretary of the Interior “followed his legal duty” and “exercised discretion” in considering economic impacts.
“In so doing, the Secretary was recognizing that the previous designation resulted in an annual loss of an estimated $100 million in Gross Domestic Product, $66 million in worker earnings, and more than 1,200 jobs, the closure of businesses, the loss of forest products infrastructure critical to maintaining forest health, and the loss of revenues to county governments that sustain essential public services — all on land that provides little benefit to the (northern spotted owl),” they wrote.
The Republicans also argued that protecting forests for the threatened species could be “counterproductive” to forest management critical to preventing destructive wildfires. They also noted another major threat to the species: invasive barred owls.
Meanwhile, Lewis County commissioners are continuing their efforts to ensure a decrease in critical habitat, finalizing a letter to Washington’s Democratic U.S. Senators. Although the correspondence has not been finalized, Commissioner Sean Swope noted on Monday that the letter should include the decline in average wages countywide. Last month, the county and its neighbors also launched another lawsuit against the federal government over the delay in the cutting of protected habitat.