Conservation groups reacted with cautious optimism to a sign from the Obama administration that it isn't interested in defending bad Bush-era regulations in Pacific Northwest forests. The government filed papers late yesterday in a court case originally brought by the timber industry aimed at weakening protections for northern spotted owls. Conservation groups entered the case to win stronger protections for the owl. The case is being tried in federal district court in Washington, DC.
In its court filing, the government asked the court for permission to withdraw last summer's final northern spotted owl recovery plan and revision of the northern spotted owl critical habitat because a Department of the Interior investigative report issued last December concluded that Bush administration officials inappropriately meddled in these actions. The government is seeking thirty days to work with the parties in the pending court case to develop an agreed order that would resolve the pending litigation. Even if a settlement agreement cannot be reached, however, the government says it will withdraw the Bush administration actions.
"Saving natural forests for spotted owls, salmon, and the people of the Pacific Northwest has proven very good for the economy of the region," said Earthjustice attorney Todd True. "We applaud the government's decision to reexamine Bush administration policies. This is a victory for those who value sound government and scientific integrity."
"Owls and the pristine forests where they live are treasured parts of our northwest way of life," said Paul Kampmeier, an attorney with the Washington Forest Law Center representing the conservation organizations. "They're a keystone species that also tell us about the health of salmon, our rivers and streams, clean water, and other wildlife."
During the summer of 2008 the Bush administration backed away from the seminal Northwest Forest Plan by publishing a deeply flawed recovery plan and eliminating millions of acres from the owl's designated critical habitat. The administration took these actions after timber industry officials complained that protections for spotted owls limited their access to logging. One of the Bush administration officials involved in weakening the owl recovery plan, Julie MacDonald, was later driven from government service after her politicized meddling became too public. The new weak recovery plan failed numerous scientific peer reviews, but that didn't stop the Bush administration from using it to justify slashing the amount of forest designated as critical habitat for the owls by about 1.6 million acres, or 23 percent. Development or logging projects in critical habitat can only proceed with the approval of federal wildlife experts.
"Numerous scientists looked closely at this owl recovery plan and recognized that it would not recover imperiled northern spotted owls," said Kampmeier. "Today, the government has recognized that the recovery plan and critical habitat revision were polluted by political interference and a stubborn refusal to use the best available science."
Hundreds of scientists have warned that spotted owl populations have been declining by four percent a year for at least the past 15 years. Much of the decline in owl populations is due to the logging of mature forests needed by owls to survive.
The Fish and Wildlife Service listed northern spotted owls as a threatened species in 1990. Only 15 to 20 percent of the original old-growth forests, needed by the owls to thrive, remain throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to providing critical habitat for spotted owls, salmon and other species, old growth forests are important sources of clean air and clean water.
"The health of our Pacific Northwest forests, the health of our local economy, and the environmental legacy we leave our children all depend on our government making well-informed decisions that follow the law and that are based on the best science," said Shawn Cantrell of the Seattle Audubon Society, one of the groups involved in the case.