SPI Exploits Loophole in Spotted Owl Rules

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Tuesday, May 11th, 2010
SPI clearcuts in the Shasta County.

SPI clearcuts in Shasta County.

Over the last year, the rulebook on spotted owls and logging has changed substantially – at least as it applies to Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) and Roseburg Forest Products and a few other industrial timber companies in northern California. In an attempt to avoid boredom or confusion we will skip the mind numbing details of how this situation came to be.

Responsibility for the spotted owl has shifted from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to Calfire and Calfire’s version of owl protection is scientifically unsupported and…laughable. Under Calfire, the standards for owl protection have been reduced to a shadow of the former, despite ongoing decline in the population. Spotted owls living on these timberlands are facing a dramatic increase in logging of their habitat.

In recognition of the legal and scientific deficiencies of their rules Calfire had “strongly suggested” the use of FWS guidelines over the use of their own Forest Practice Rules (FPRs) for owl protection standards. In EPIC’s review of THPs proposing to log spotted owl habitat it was apparent that nobody was using the FWS guidelines and instead were defaulting to the FPR minimums while Calfire turned a blind eye.

The FPRs version of spotted owl protections are outdated, vague and subjective…just how the industry likes them. The FPRs are a very low bar mostly due to differences in how Calfire defines the different types of owl habitat. For example, what Calfire calls roosting habitat FWS calls low quality foraging habitat. While FWS definitions are based on scientific research of what habitat owls actually use for nesting roosting and foraging, Calfire’s habitat definitions are inclusive pretty much any stand of trees averaging 11 inches in diameter, which is awfully reminiscent of the average industrial tree plantation.

“…our combined experience with hundreds of THPs indicates that the cumulative effects of repeated entries within many NSO home ranges has reduced habitat quality to a degree causing reduced occupancy rates and frequent site abandonment. In a large proportion of technical assistance letters to CAL FIRE and industrial timberland owners during the past five years, we noted the lack of NSO responses at historic territories, and described habitat conditions considered inadequate to support continued occupancy and reproduction.”

“…the strong differences in trends observed on private versus federal lands supports the contention that management on private timberlands is creating habitat conditions that do not support sustained occupancy by NSO.”-US FWS

We recognize that the FWS guidelines are not legally binding requirements, but given that Cal Fire has recommended using them to avoid take and the fact that they are the only scientifically supported standard for take avoidance, we are surprised how consistently SPI THPs fails to meet the standards in the FWS guidelines. In other words, the pattern we are seeing is that SPI and Cal Fire pay lip service to the FWS guidelines but make no real analysis of the differences between the proposed logging and the standards in the guidelines and the implications it has for the owl. The differences between the proposed logging and the spirit of the FWS guidelines are not just variation in approach, ultimately resulting in an equivalent level of protection for owls, they are significant, substantive and represent a much lower bar. Had this plan been submitted to FWS for Technical Assistance we are certain that the amount and configuration of owl habitat retained would not have been considered sufficient to avoid take. – EPIC comments