The Lewis County Board of Commissioners are considering teaming up once again with neighboring counties and the Oregon-based Lumber Lobby Group, American Forest Resource Council, in an attempt to chip away at the critical habitat zone designated for the northern spotted owl.
“It’s a lot of land,” County Commissioner Gary Stamper said in a Sept. 10 meeting. “And in this business, when you snooze you lose.”
Nine and a half million acres across the west coast, including about 50,000 in Lewis County, were set aside for the species after it was designated as “threatened” in 2012. Soon after, the county joined AFRC, Skamania and Klickitat counties, as well as several lumber companies in suing the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
In April, after years of litigation and a 2018 Supreme Court case that limited the federal government’s ability to designate land as “critical habitat,” the USFWS agreed to revise the area. The new proposal excludes hundreds of thousands of acres in Oregon and California. Public comments are due Oct. 13, and AFRC and Lewis County are both planning on urging USFWS to release even more land.
“Now we’re in the place of, just like any member of the public, wishing to make our pitch,” Eric Eisenberg, the county’s Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, said.
County commissioners need to decide whether to join AFRC, which has commissioned a powerful consultant, according to Eisenberg. If they do so, the county could end up chipping in $8,000 for an economic analysis aimed at persuading the federal government that the economic impact of preserving the land, including lost jobs, outweighs the environmental impact. Eisenberg told commissioners they must act fast.
“AFRC believes that this expert is critical. He’s a heavyweight and he’s expensive,” Eisenberg told commissioners.
However, Eisenberg said the county’s own lawyer is recommending a different strategy than AFRC — one that attempts to convince the USFWS that the species doesn’t need much of the land anyway. The county could argue, for example, that the owls aren’t using the critical habitat designated in Washington. But Eisenberg said the county’s environmental planner, Ann Weckback, thinks proving that isn’t realistic.
“She thinks that a survey of that type is something that you can’t do in a month,” Eisenberg told county commissioners. “She’s also concerned that it’s not true.”
Eisenberg said the county could also argue that the trees are too young and have too many invasive barred owls to offer a hospitable environment for northern spotted owls.
Weckback said the county could realistically ask for about 20,000 acres to be released, but she is still working to collect and analyze data. The estimate is partially based on how much of the critical habitat zone includes land covered by the Clinton-era Northwest Forest Plan, which aimed to protect the owl while also allowing some logging activities.
AFRC also plans on bringing up the Northwest Forest Plan. Their lawyer, Lawson Fite, said the USFWS unfairly bypassed that agreement.
“It really kind of blew up the bargain of the Clinton forest plan,” he said, noting that he’s unsure how many acres AFRC will be asking for.
Commissioners expressed interest in teaming up with AFRC, with Commissioner Stamper saying he has confidence in the experienced group.
“It’s also the idea of not going after something that really is ours,” he said.
Members of the public can request a public hearing by Sept. 25, and can submit comments before Oct. 13 here: https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=FWS-R1-ES-2020-0050-0001