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Putting the Ax to the Owls

February 18, 2003

Whoo does the Bush administration think it's fooling?

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would not list the California spotted owl as an endangered or threatened species because a landmark Sierra Nevada forest management plan provides adequate protection for the owl's habitat. Who knew that the U.S. Forest Service is in the process of unraveling the Sierra Nevada Framework, including the very provisions that are designed to protect the reclusive owl? Who indeed?

The framework, covering 11 national forests that range from south of Bakersfield to north of Lake Tahoe, was put in place late in the Clinton administration after more than a decade of extensive scientific study. It gives particular protection to old-growth forests, the favored habitat of the owl.

Environmental groups that petitioned to list the owl under the Endangered Species Act argue that the owl population is dwindling. The Fish and Wildlife Service's Steve Thompson says some biologists believe the owl is holding its own and others say it needs more protection. He acknowledged that the decision was a close call.

The 1990 listing of the owl's cousin, the northern spotted owl, triggered a massive battle between loggers and environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest. Much of the owl's habitat was put off-limits to timber cutters. Loggers fear that will happen in the Sierra and they hailed the Feb. 10 decision.

To Thompson's credit, he notes that the Forest Service's revisions of the Sierra Nevada Framework "could substantially affect California spotted owls" and says "we will review the effects at a later date, if necessary." That comment exposes the shallowness of the Forest Service's excuse that more owl habitat needs to be logged to prevent catastrophic fires that could destroy owl habitat. Once again, the Bush administration says the forests must be logged to be protected.

Environmental groups say they will appeal the decision to the courts. They should.

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