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SPI’s Shell game threatens Northern Spotted Owls

Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), California’s largest and most notorious timber company, is no stranger to conflicts with federal and state agencies over protection of wildlife like the threatened Northern Spotted Owl (NSO). SPI’s aggressive approach to logging owl habitat appears to have been a key factor in the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to stop helping timber companies design logging plans to minimize impacts on owls and their habitat. FWS’ withdrawal leaves only the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFIRE) between the timber company and the NSO. So guess what giant timber company is now aggressively pushing CalFIRE to be allowed to log NSO habitat, using a shell game of mutually inconsistent standards as cover?

As it got out of the business of evaluating Timber Harvest Plans (THPs), FWS issued a set of “take avoidance guidelines,” to give foresters a road map to avoid harming owls in their logging plans. CalFIRE is specifically barred from approving THPs that would result in ‘take’ of listed species. FWS has stated that California’s current Forest Practice Rules – the rules CalFIRE enforces – are not strong enough to insure ‘no take’ of NSO. By contrast to the nearly two decade-old state rules, the FWS guidelines provide clearer habitat definitions and stronger habitat retention standards, grounded in the current science, for THPs in either of two zones – the coastal redwood zone or the mixed-conifer forests of the interior. The problem is, while CalFIRE has told THP proponents that they can use the FWS guidelines, the state forest regulators have signaled that they’re only actually going to enforce their own inadequate rules.

Exploiting this confusion, SPI is mixing and matching the FWS’ interior and coastal guidance standards, but claiming to comply with the Forest Practice Rules. A recent SPI THP in Humboldt County, 1-10-048HUM, provides an example of the problems this approach can create. In this plan, the stand to be logged is primarily Douglas fir with a large hardwood component – forest that should be assessed as “interior” forest type. Nonetheless, SPI is using the FWS take avoidance guidelines for the coastal (redwood) region to define the available owl habitat. This leads to SPI mis-classifying the habitat, in a way that misrepresents the amount of habitat available for owls in the stand. Then, SPI uses the habitat retention guidelines for interior stands mixing two entirely different standards.

The coastal and interior guidance differ not only in terms of habitat definition, but also in terms of habitat quantities to be retained and the size of the NSO core area home range to be used. Essentially, the two sets of guidance are meant to apply to two distinct ecosystems that owls use in different ways. FWS has made it clear there is no biological or scientific justification for mixing the two standards, and no justification is provided in SPI’s THP.

Finally, though the plan doesn’t comply with either the coastal or interior guidance, SPI expects to obtain a so-called “take avoidance determination” from CalFIRE and get the plan approved, simply because it conforms to the sub-standard Forest Practice Rules.

Confused yet? SPI’s shell game compounds the damage already done to owl habitat in the area. The NSO activity center in question has less nesting/roosting habitat than the guidelines require because of past logging. SPI acknowledges this in the THP, stating that there “is currently insufficient habitat within 1/2 mile of the detection to support NSO…if (the activity center) were indeed a valid NSO territory, the habitat conditions would be considered to be in an impaired state.”

SPI’s proposal to remove approximately 36 of 102 acres (35%) of the existing nesting/roosting habitat from within the 0.5-mile to 1.3-mile radius of the activity center could result in a significant impact to NSO, particularly when the activity center is already deficient in nesting/roosting habitat within that distance. But SPI is claiming that the activity center in question is not an owl territory, and thus logging within 1.3 miles of the activity center will not result in any further impacts to NSO. The owl site has not been surveyed in over a decade and SPI fails to provide data to substantiate its claim that the activity center is in fact invalid or unoccupied. So, SPI’s logic is that degrading owl habitat won’t harm owls because it’s not owl habitat because they’ve already degraded it?

CalFIRE, for its part, has recommended this plan for approval despite the morass of differing definitions and retention standards, and despite the fact that further habitat reduction could lead to unauthorized ‘take’ of NSO.

Please see the latest edition of Econews for the full length of this article.


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