With spotted owl count falling, lawsuit is planned
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
By ROBERT MCCLURE
More than a decade after the Clinton administration's Northwest Forest Plan was launched to save the threatened spotted owl, a Seattle environmental group says the bird's population in Washington is plummeting.
Citing "overwhelming evidence" about the decline of what became a focal point in the battle between environmentalists and the timber industry in the 1990s, the Seattle chapter of the Audubon Society launched a legal assault Tuesday on Weyerhaeuser Co. and the state agency that regulates timber cutting.
Joined by the Kittitas Audubon Society, the Seattle group cited five spots in southwest Washington where the state allowed extensive logging by Weyerhaeuser near owl nests. The logging, and more that is planned, violate the Endangered Species Act, the environmentalists contend.
Weyerhaeuser says it follows state regulations and even exceeds them in some ways.
While the spotted owl was the focus of intense clashes between environmentalists and timber-industry supporters in the early 1990s, those fights centered mostly on national forests. There, logging has long been severely curtailed to preserve the owl and other species that thrive in older forests.
The plan for saving the owl focused on protecting federal land in national forests. But that didn't work. Spotted owls are declining in number in Washington at more than twice the rate predicted by federal biologists. Environmentalists point to state commitments that private lands would make some contribution.
"Everyone knew it was biologically questionable to shift all the recovery to federal land," said Peter Goldman, a lawyer with the Washington Forest Law Center who is representing the Audubon chapters. "The state's never done its share, and now we're really in a panic mode. ... It's not just about the owl. It's about broken promises."
While Weyerhaeuser told the government years ago that it would establish a long-term plan to protect spotted owls on its extensive Southwest Washington holdings, the plan was never completed.
Instead, company biologists carefully monitor the owls, Weyerhaeuser says, and logging is designed to maximize owl survival by leaving intact areas considered important to the birds.
On Tuesday, the environmental groups filed an official notice to Weyerhaeuser and to state Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland of their intention to sue.
"We've got protections across the state for spotted owls, and those do not extend to Weyerhaeuser," said Alex Morgan, conservation director for Seattle Audubon. "You've got one bad apple that is not living by the rules that other landowners have to live by. ... Instead, we have an entire region of the state that has zero protection for spotted owls."
Responded Frank Mendizabal, a company spokesman: "We are not aware that any of our operations, either ongoing or proposed, pose any threat to any northern spotted owl. We follow all the rules and regulations."
Spokeswoman Patty Henson at the state Department of Natural Resources said Sutherland would have no comment until state lawyers can study the filing.
Environmentalists threatened a similar suit in 2003 when they saw U.S. Timberlands Co. logging heavily around spotted owl nests on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. That launched a discussion of 2 1/2 years that culminated in the Forest Practices Board last year rejecting more-rigorous reviews of logging in 13 "spotted owl special emphasis areas."
Frustrated, environmentalists scouted out the best examples possible of where logging is harming owls. They centered in on a five-site region in Southwest Washington that was never tagged a "special emphasis area" for the birds despite being nominated for protection by state scientists.
The same sites were cited last year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in notifying Weyerhaeuser that federal biologists were concerned about the company's logging.
Since then, the company has met with federal officials and explained its system of carefully studying the owls to help shape timber cuts, said Kevin Godbout, the company's director of external and regulatory affairs.
"We've been able to ease some of their concerns, and some of their concerns are ongoing," Godbout said.
He said the Southwest Washington conservation plan promised by the company, which was to cover owls and a number of other species, was developed but never put into effect because "we just weren't able to get as much consensus as we wanted among the various stakeholders."
Mendizabal said Weyerhaeuser has an extensive program to locate and protect spotted-owl nests. Its scientists share data they collect with state and federal officials.
He said the company actually goes further than the regulations require. Outside the "special emphasis areas" for owls, loggers can cut down a tree where spotted owls have nested so long as they wait until the nesting season is over.
Weyerhaeuser doesn't do that, though, Mendizabal said. Only after the birds have left and several nesting seasons have gone by with no sign of them is that patch of forest cut, he said.
In addition, Godbout said, the company routinely leaves more than the 70 acres around spotted-owl nests required in many situations by state rules. And in some of the places where the environmentalists are complaining, he said, it appears a spotted-owl competitor, the barred owl, has moved in and displaced the spotted owl.
"We take this responsibility seriously," Godbout said. "We manage with a wealth of information."
Pat Ward, a spotted-owl biologist working with the environmental groups, said cutting big swaths of forest near a nest can be almost as harmful as cutting the nest tree itself, because the owls need forest to find prey.
If Weyerhaeuser is allowed to continue logging near owl nests, "the probability that those owls are going to survive through time is really low," Ward said. "There's a very high likelihood that they will not do well if they persist at all."
A partial history of the northern spotted owl issue:
1989: Federal officials propose to protect spotted owl under Endangered Species Act.
1990: Owl officially declared "threatened" and granted protection.
1991: U.S. District Judge William Dwyer forbids U.S. Forest Service to allow logging in spotted owl habitat. Forest Service halves logging in national forests. Weyerhaeuser CEO George Weyerhaeuser lobbies Congress and the Bush administration, which agrees to drop Weyerhaeuser and other private timberlands from proposed habitat protections.
1993: Clinton administration convenes nationally televised Forest Summit to develop plan to save owls while preserving the timber industry. Weyerhaeuser executive Charlie Bingham promises to develop a plan to protect owls and other threatened species on 100,000 acres of company land in Southwest Washington.
1994: Dwyer approves Clinton administration's Northwest Forest Plan, the result of the 1993 Forest Summit. It calls for large rollbacks in timber cutting in national forests.
1995: State Forest Practices Board designates 13 areas for "special emphasis" in protecting spotted owls on private land, but rejects state scientists' recommendation to extend protections to the northern Olympic Peninsula and Southwest Washington.
Late 1990s: Weyerhaeuser drops effort to develop Southwest Washington habitat-conservation plan.
2003: Environmentalists threaten suit under Endangered Species Act, saying state has allowed too much timber cutting near spotted owl nests by U.S. Timberlands Co. on eastern Cascade slopes. Negotiations with the state ensue.
2005: State Forest Practices Board rejects environmentalists' request to tighten logging on 115,000 acres in the "special emphasis areas" for owls.
2006: Environmentalists file notice required by Endangered Species Act, saying they will sue Weyerhaeuser and the Forest Practices Board.
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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