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Judge Halts Logging in Spotted Owl Habitat

By Adam Rankin
Journal Northern Bureau
    Environmentalists are declaring a legal victory, at least for now, in a battle to protect the habitat of federally protected Mexican spotted owls from a Jemez Mountain logging project aimed at salvaging about 950 acres of burned national forest.
    Late Wednesday, Albuquerque federal district Judge Christina Armijo ruled that part of the timber salvage project should be put on hold until a second hearing Jan. 30.
    The project, known as the Lakes and BMG timber salvage, was designed "to recover the timber value of fire-killed trees" and contribute to the regional economy of northern New Mexico, which has seen a downturn in the logging industry, according to U.S. Forest Service documents.
    About 4,600 acres burned in the Lakes and BMG areas in 2002.
    The temporary restraining order to cease logging applies only to one of 11 forest patches that are part of the salvage project, which does not target any live trees. The order also allows trees that have already been cut to be removed.
    Unit 6, the patch of forest in question, includes a 600-acre area designated as protected Mexican spotted owl habitat, off-limits to logging except when biologists determine it is no longer viable for owls, or when logging will improve the habitat.
    Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians and Santa Fe Forest Watch filed suit Jan. 8 against the Forest Service for allegedly violating the Endangered Species Act and several other federal environmental laws when it decided to allow the logging project to go forward.
    The groups first filed an appeal in September with the Forest Service, seeking to overturn the decision to log, but were overruled by the regional forester in November. In his decision, the forester stated owls no longer occupied the area, despite evidence to the contrary.
    "In their rush to cut big trees... (the Forest Service) ignored essential facts," said Sam Hitt, head of Wild Watershed, one of the groups that appealed the Forest Service decision. He called the decision an amazing victory.
    Officials with the Santa Fe National Forest, which is managing the timber project, said they can't comment on pending litigation.
    Court documents show that even after federal biologists documented owls in the area beginning May 13, the Forest Service issued its final decision and a "finding of no significant impact" for the timber salvage on Aug. 6.