The Association of O&C Counties Wednesday voiced support for a new federal decision that will exclude all O&C timberlands from the 9.5 million acres previously designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical habitat for the northern spotted owl.
Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman, who is also president of the association, said this is a change he’s pushed for during every trip to Washington, D.C.
“This is very important. It’s been a top priority of the Association of O&C Counties for the better part of 20 years,” he said.
But wildlife biologists and conservationists have voiced equally strong opposition to the change, predicting it would devastate the spotted owl and possibly drive it to extinction.
Francis Eatherington of Cascadia Wildlands said Wednesday it’s a terrible time to reduce protection for the northern spotted owl.
“They’re just holding on by a thread. We don’t want to see them be exterminated in our lifetime. We’re responsible for protecting all of the endangered wildlife, especially that live on our public forests,” she said.
“There’s no reason for us to want to harm an owl that’s clinging to life, that’s endangered. It doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
The rule change is expected to take effect March 16.
Freeman said the rule change won’t by itself make it easier to log on O&C lands, but it will remove a conflict between the Bureau of Land Management’s resource management plan and Fish and Wildlife’s rules. Spotted owl habitat is still protected under the resource management plan’s rules, he said.
He said the biggest threat to the spotted owl isn’t habitat loss, it’s the competing barred owl.
“Even if you did absolutely zero harvest or any type of tree cutting on the O&C lands, it still isn’t going to save the spotted owl. The barred owl removal is what’s going to be critical for saving the spotted owl,” he said.
Freeman also said socioeconomics have to be considered as well, and the Endangered Species Act doesn’t override the O&C Act. The O&C Act said the predominant use for O&C lands was to be management for a sustainable yield timber harvest.
Douglas Timber Operators Executive Director Matt Hill said the rule will now focus recovery efforts on lands that are actually habitable by owls.
“A short drive into the Archie Creek Fire scar reminds anyone that wildfire remains the single greatest risk to spotted owl recovery and we should be focusing our conservation efforts there,” he said.
The rule change also impacts other lands managed by the BLM.
Eatherington said the spotted owl can’t live anywhere but in public forests, because they live in old growth areas that are found nowhere else.
She said the competition from the barred owl means spotted owl habitat should be more protected, not less.
“Because of the barred owl, it makes even less sense to eliminate protections for the spotted owl,” she said.
She said if the county wants more jobs, it should push to eliminate exports of unprocessed logs. If it wants more timber revenue, she said, it should push to restore a timber harvest severance tax on private timberland owners.