SEATTLE — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday scrapped a plan, authorized in the last days of the Bush administration, to nearly quadruple the allowable logging on federal lands in western Oregon -- including many prized old-growth stands -- and open up protected northern spotted owl habitat across Oregon, Washington and Northern California to timber companies.
Salazar said the Bureau of Land Management had pushed through its Western Oregon Plan Revisions in 2008 under political pressure from the Interior Department, without meeting scientific review standards mandated under the Endangered Species Act.
The plan was "based on a legally indefensible process," Salazar said. "It will not stand up in court, and if we attempted to defend it in court, it could lead to fruitless years of uncertainty and inaction."
But he also pledged to deliver as many environmentally sustainable timber tracts as possible to the struggling logging communities of western Oregon, where unemployment in many places tops 20%.
Environmental groups applauded Thursday's announcement, which restores to old-growth forests protections that were brokered by the Clinton administration to help end the wars over the spotted owl, which depends on the giant trees' canopy.
"Everyone realized it was going to take some time" for President Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan to work, said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice.
"What has been shown is that owls are doing better on federally protected lands than anywhere else."
There currently are fewer than 5,000 spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest, and the species continues to decline at a rate of about 4% a year -- in part because of the encroachment into its territory of the more robust barred owl.
In addition to harming the spotted owls, some conservationists said, the Bush forest plan also would have shrunk stream-side buffer zones that are integral to protection of endangered fish stocks.
"We have a duty to ensure that the law and sound science are at the foundation of the way we do business," Salazar said. He pledged to update the Northwest Forest Plan, beginning in southern Oregon, to provide more timber and protect species -- like the spotted owl, marbled murrelet, salmon and steelhead trout -- that depend on healthy forests.
Timber industry officials long have complained that environmental lawsuits and federal bureaucracy have prevented sawmills from getting even the 1.1 billion board feet a year promised under the Clinton-era forest plan.
"We probably only attained about 30% to 40% of that," said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council.
The Western Oregon Plan Revisions could have provided an additional 502 million board feet a year of timber, enough to support more than 9,000 jobs.
Tom Strickland, assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said federal officials were working to develop a list of timber tracts that could be harvested rapidly to help sustain logging communities without threatening endangered species.
Ann Forest Burns of the American Forest Resource Council said that the industry was willing to work with the Obama administration, but that she wished federal officials had acted sooner in canceling the Oregon plan.
"The counties of Oregon need the [Western Oregon Plan Revisions]. . . . If they were going to make this decision," she said, "it's too bad there was a six-month delay."