Timber industry and Bush administration lawyers late yesterday filed proposed settlements in two federal court cases challenging the protected status and critical habitat designations for northern spotted owls and marbled murrelets. Conservation groups, which have intervened in the cases and have full party status, have been excluded from the settlement talks, and announced that they would file objections to the settlement with the court.
"I hope the Bush administration doesn't follow this same back room process to settle litigation from the Enron mess," said Mitch Friedman of Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. "This sweetheart deal sets in motion actions that could open up our old growth forests to renewed attack."
Environmental groups have not yet seen the final settlement agreements, although they were provided with a draft. If the final is the same as the draft, the federal government will review the protected status of the birds this year. To date, the best science indicates that northern spotted owl populations continue to decline.
In recent cases where industry coalitions have brought challenges to environmental protections, the federal government has either failed to defend the lawsuits or settled on terms that benefit special interests and harm the environment. The government eliminated habitat protections for many salmon species in a settlement earlier this year, and it has done the same for imperiled red-legged frogs in California. Coupled with the government's failure to defend against legal attacks on coho salmon and protections for roadless forests, citizen groups have been forced to play the role usually reserved for the Department of Justice.
"It was a knock-down, drag-out fight to get protections for owls, murrelets, and our ancient forests, and now the Bush administration is giving away special deals right and left," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice. "Apparently the administration no longer defends environmental lawsuits brought by its friends in the timber industry."
"Our region has moved beyond the logging battles of the 1980's but the timber industry wants to go 'back to the future'," said Bob Freimark, Director of the Pacific Northwest office of The Wilderness Society. "Instead of moving forward with environmentally responsible forest management, the timber industry wants to return to cutting ancient forests."
Represented by Earthjustice, the groups in the court cases are Audubon Society of Portland, Biodiversity Northwest, Environmental Protection Information Center, Gifford Pinchot Task Force, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Seattle Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society.