The Obama administration took advantage of the Thanksgiving weekend to give an early Christmas present to its “green” constituency: 9.6 million acres across the states of Washington, Oregon, and California. The ostensible recipient of this Black Friday gift is the Northern Spotted Owl, the raptor that has enraptured environmental activists and enraged loggers, ranchers, landowners, and rural towns that have been economically devastated by the “threatened” designation affixed to the bird by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, the real beneficiaries of the huge new lock-up of federal and state lands are not the iconic feathered mascots but the gold-plated activist organizations that lobbied, sued, and besieged the federal government to increase the protected spotted owl habitat from the already enormous 5.3 million acres designated by the Bush administration in 2008. Among those organizations are the American Bird Conservancy, the Center for Biological Diversity, EarthJustice, and the Sierra Club.
However, while celebrating the near doubling of the current spotted owl habitat, the green activists are far from satisfied. They are upset, first of all because they were hoping for an even bigger payoff. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s initial proposal in February contained 13.9 million acres of habitat, including 1.3 million acres of private land. Besides revising down the proposed increase, the current designation also excludes private land. In addition, the environmental groups are attacking the new forest plan’s concession to allow “active management,” i.e., controlled thinning and logging, in some of the designated habitat areas.
"Our concern is it's giving a pretty broad license for on-the-ground management," said Brett Hartl, senior policy fellow for the Society for Conservation Biology in Washington, D.C. The draft rule gave the BLM and Forest Service leeway to authorize logging projects that could harm the owl's critical habitat, according to Hartl.
"They've never done this before in critical habitat, where they've had such detailed instructions to the agencies," Hartl said. "It's troublesome because that's not the purpose of critical habitat under the ESA. Critical habitat is a mapping exercise primarily based on the conservation needs of the species."
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Photo of Northern Spotted Owl: AP Images