The Biden administration on Monday proposed restoring habitat protections across more than 3 million acres of Pacific Northwest forests that are home to the dwindling population of northern spotted owls — a bird that has been a symbol of the fight between environmentalists and loggers for decades.
The proposed rule change would reverse a decision made in the waning days of the Trump administration that stripped critical habitat protections from swaths of federal lands across 45 counties in Washington, Oregon and California — more than a third of the bird’s total protected habitat and much of it in prime timberland in Oregon’s coastal ranges.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in its new Federal Register notice that its own decision from January to exclude more than 3 million acres from protections had “defects and shortcomings.”
“The Service now concludes that there was insufficient rationale and justification to support the exclusion of” some 3.4 million acres from the owl’s critical habitat, the notice said. Instead, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it would seek to cut back protections on 200,000 acres in Oregon, a move first proposed last year.
“The exclusions we are proposing now will allow fuels management and sustainable timber harvesting to continue while supporting northern spotted owl recovery,” Martha Williams, principal deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement.
Conservation groups celebrated the Biden administration’s decision while also calling for more action to save old-growth forests and spotted owl habitat in the Pacific Northwest. Some environmentalists said they do not think that the new proposal makes any progress in protecting spotted owls.
“We’re not going to get any new critical habitat out of this,” said Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild, an environmental group. “This is great, it absolutely needs to happen, but it’s not, in and of itself, going to recover spotted owls or protect salmon.”
The new Biden administration proposal did not sit well with the timber industry.
“We’re very concerned,” said Lawson Fite, the general counsel for the American Forest Resource Council, which represents the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. “I think it reflects potentially an elevation of politics over science and law.”
Fite said that restoring protections increases the risk of wildfire to forests, including spotted owl habitat, by inhibiting forest management. The main threats to the spotted owl are fires, as well as the encroachment of the barred owl, he said, and the Biden administration proposal doesn’t address those problems.
Because President Donald Trump’s Interior Department had made the rule change so close to leaving office, and its implementation was delayed by the Biden administration, the loss of protections had not yet gone into effect.
“On his way out the door, [Interior Secretary David] Bernhardt just laid a bunch of regulatory land mines that would never hold up but were just going to take time for the Biden administration to clear up,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, an advocacy group. “And this is one of those cases.”
For decades, the northern spotted owl has been caught in a struggle for control over Pacific Northwest forests between the timber industry and environmentalists who want to save the species from extinction. The iconic chocolate-brown owl has been listed as threatened since 1990, and the Clinton administration had established critical habitat for the bird and other species across millions of acres.
The owl has lost some 70% of its habitat and could go extinct, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in December, when it determined that the bird should be upgraded from “threatened” to “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. But the agency at the time said it wouldn’t make the change, citing staffing and resource constraints.
Traditional threats of logging and development have been compounded by competition from a fellow bird, the barred owl, which is larger and more aggressive and has moved into the Pacific Northwest from the east.
Given the intensifying threats to the forests from climate change and massive wildfires, having protections in place is “really important out here,” said Kristen Boyles, a Seattle-based lawyer for Earthjustice, which represented conservation groups in the lawsuit to block the Trump administration’s rule change.
“We’re delighted to see that proposed rule this morning, although not entirely surprised, given how ridiculous the previous Trump rule was,” Boyles said.
Conservation groups were already opposed to a Trump administration proposal from last year to cut 204,000 acres of the owl’s habitat as part of a court settlement with the timber industry. But then the final rule came out five days before Trump left office, calling for stripping protections on 3.4 million acres and citing the “discretion” of the interior secretary.
“This was an incredibly indefensible decision,” Boyles said. “It was clearly biologically and scientifically invalid; it was also just invalid in the way we do business. You don’t do a proposed rule for 200,000 acres and then do a final rule for 17 times that.”
In its Federal Register notice, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that the public had not had the opportunity to review and comment on several “new rationales” that the Trump administration used for slashing owl habitat protections in its January decision, including arguments about how logging would impact local economies, wildfires and the owl.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also said that removing 3.4 million acres from critical habitat protections was “premised on inaccurate assumptions” about the owl and its habitat, such as about the relative threat of the barred owl and the government’s ability to control that species.
“In fact the best scientific data indicate that protecting late successional habitat also remains critical for the conservation of the spotted owl,” the notice read.
Public comment on the proposal will be open for two months.