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NM environment, economy suffering thanks to owl case

Fallout from the Mexican spotted owl lawsuit fiasco just keeps coming.

First, the federal suit, which pitted a litigious environmental organization against the entrenched bureaucracy of the U.S. Forest Service over monitoring of the endangered bird, resulted in an ill-advised ban on forestry activity in New Mexico’s national forests – including firewood gathering.

While the federal judge in Arizona who’s presiding over the case quickly backtracked to allow sale of firewood permits, the order prohibiting other forest management activities still stands.

Now, according to a Tuesday story by Journal North editor Mark Oswald, it appears that order is going to impact at least 400 jobs, per New Mexico’s Forest Industries Association.

Those jobs range from fire mitigation to watershed restoration and beyond. The association is estimating a $9.8 million revenue hit in six months.

And that’s on top of the environmental cost of failing to carry out vitally important forest management duties that we know keep public lands healthy and lessen the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

All this for a measure that nobody has proved will protect the animal in question – the lawsuit itself arose out of WildEarth Guardians’ accusations the Forest Service has not properly monitored the Mexican spotted owl’s population in years, which means we don’t have an accurate estimate of how many live in New Mexico’s national forests.

As the Journal Editorial Board has previously stated, there aren’t any heroes in this tale.

The U.S. Forest Service could have done much more to head off this fowl saga – as noted in earlier stories, the agency has had a couple decades to try to get a handle on the owl’s numbers and habitat.

And while the judge’s ruling seems clear, WildEarth Guardians appears to be trying to duck the firestorm of public criticism over the ruling by stating the Forest Service is interpreting it in too broad a manner. The court’s exact verbiage shows otherwise.

So as we all await a real accounting of the owl and its critical habitat, can we at least agree this is the wrong way to achieve progress? That we can do better than years of inaction followed by years of litigation? How much reforestation would all the legal fees have covered? Isn’t there a more productive way to achieve meaningful environmental protections than protracted legal battles that result in sweeping and harmful judicial orders?

We know this lawsuit ruling will cost hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars. That it will delay essential thinning and clearing. But there’s no way to know what effect it will have, if any, on the Mexican spotted owl.

And that begs the question “who” thought this was a good idea in the first place?

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.