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Feds seek end to forest use injunction

SANTA FE – Federal agencies have filed “biological opinions” for national forests in New Mexico and one in Arizona, and have asked a U.S. district judge to dissolve the court’s previous injunction on timber management activities on habitat of the Mexican spotted owl.

But an environmental group that sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failure to monitor owl populations is opposed to the motion, saying federal agencies need to start all over again.

A U.S. district court in Arizona in September issued an order requiring the U.S. Forest Service to suspend timber management activities – including tree-cutting, gathering fuel wood and prescribed burns – in the Carson, Cibola, Gila, Lincoln and Santa Fe national forests in New Mexico, and Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, pending formal consultation addressing potential effects on the spotted owl, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The court modified its order in October to allow some timber management activities, such as prescribed burns, to resume amid outcry from federal and state lawmakers, firewood vendors, forest thinning contractors and folks who rely on firewood to heat their homes in the winter.

According to a news release from the U.S. Forest Service, the biological opinions were filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in coordination with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service.

The opinions, among other things, summarize the current status of the Mexican spotted owl and its habitat in the national forests, and how fire management, forest health and watershed management programs may affect the owls.

The motion states that the filings satisfy the court’s order and that “the circumstances that originally necessitated injunctive relief” – the moratorium on timber activities – “are no longer present.”

Regional Forester Cal Joyner said in a statement that the Forest Service had met the court’s mandate as quickly as possible and was committed to recovery efforts for the Mexican spotted owl.

“We’re encouraged and grateful for the work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and for the sustained support of our partners and communities across the region, and we are hopeful that these filings will lead to quick relief to the communities affected by the court-ordered injunction,” he said.

But John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, says the biological opinions remains flawed.

“The judge already told the Forest Service that failing to commit to long-term, range-wide population monitoring is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. We hope the judge rejects these plans and that the Forest Service goes back to the drawing board and, once and for all, takes care of the owl and its forest habitat by monitoring spotted owls,” he wrote in a statement to the Journal.

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