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Spotted owl deal would ease restrictions

A legal fight over Mexican spotted owl habitat led to a court injunction restricting tree cutting in national forests in New Mexico and Arizona. (Courtesy of The Center For Biological Diversity)

A legal fight over Mexican spotted owl habitat led to a court injunction restricting tree cutting in national forests in New Mexico and Arizona. (Courtesy of The Center For Biological Diversity)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A tentative agreement in a court fight over the Mexican spotted owl would allow the resumption of prescribed burns, forest thinning and commercial wood gathering in New Mexico national forests.

The agreement, which still needs a judge’s approval, also would allow the cutting of personal Christmas trees as well as a tree in the Carson National Forest that will become the U.S. Capitol’s Christmas tree this holiday season.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Raner Collins of Arizona ruled in litigation brought by Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians that the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had shirked their responsibility to count the Mexican spotted owl as part of a recovery plan.

The judge also halted tree cutting across thousands of square miles of forest in five national forests in New Mexico and one in Arizona until federal agencies can understand better how to monitor the population of the threatened owl.

After an uproar over banning traditional firewood gathering that is crucial to heating homes in parts of New Mexico, the judge approved a request to change his order and allow that activity. But other timber management projects remain sidelined.

Since the ruling, prescribed burns – used to take out underbrush and other fuels to prevent wildfires – and related forest thinning projects have been halted.

Also, the New Mexico Forest Industries Association has estimated that more than 400 jobs have been affected, in fields ranging from those who do forest and watershed restoration work by removing small trees or brush under federal contracts to artisans who use forest wood to make furniture and flooring.

WildEarth Guardians has maintained that the Forest Service’s interpretation of the court ruling has been overly broad and intended to stoke fear and controversy. The Forest Service says it is has been following guidelines for what constitutes now-banned “timber management” activities.

John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, released a statement Tuesday saying: “We are relieved that the agencies finally agreed to engage in negotiations and come to an agreement about activities that we believe will not harm the Mexican spotted owl.

“This agreement will allow trail maintenance, Christmas tree cutting and thinning activities outside of spotted owl habitat and I’m happy that people can get back to those activities in our national forests.”

The Forest Service said: “USDA Forest Service Southwestern Region continues to be committed to being as open and transparent as possible in notifying interested groups and individuals when we take steps aimed at alleviating the stressors of the recent court-ordered injunction.”

A recent court filing by the Forest Service includes a declaration by an agency official who also argues that implementation of the injunction is overly broad.

Karl Malcolm, the Forest Service’s wildlife ecologist for the Southwestern Region, says he believes the injunction “now halting a variety of timber management activities is being interpreted and implemented in an overly broad manner which is limiting activities in areas not relevant to MSO (Mexican spotted owl) conservation, and which elsewhere has the potential to be detrimental to the MSO by delaying valuable conservation actions (e.g., prescribed burning) intended specifically to enhance and protect forested habitats important for MSO conservation and recovery.”

The agreement among WildEarth Guardians, the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife filed Monday asks for several exemptions to the injunction, including for:

• Projects entirely outside Mexican spotted owl habitat, designated spotted owl “protected activity centers” and owl recovery habitat, including timber sales in the Tres Piedras and southwest Jemez Mountain areas.

• Prescribed burns, including in owl habitat, with the limitation that no trees greater than 9 inches in diameter “will be cut in Mexican spotted owl Protected Activity Centers in connection with such prescribed burning projects.”

• Commercial firewood gathering projects that are outside spotted owl habitat, including projects in the Lincoln and Santa Fe national forests. Two projects in the Gila National Forest will remain on hold, but the Forest Service can authorize commercial firewood gathering elsewhere in the Gila outside owl habitat.

• Personal Christmas tree cutting and the cutting of the U.S. Capitol tree, as well as cutting for “personal use products” such as vigas and latillas and by Native American tribes to gather trees or plants for ceremonial purposes.

• The cutting of “hazard trees,” as long as each tree is identified as having problems that present “a risk of injury to life or property.”

Oral arguments on modifying the judge’s order to reflect the agreement on exceptions to the injunction are set for Nov. 7.