In ancient Greece and Rome, owls represented wisdom. In medieval Christianity, they became an emblem of evil. But one owl in particular has come to represent a modern-day battle between conservation …
In ancient Greece and Rome, owls represented wisdom. In medieval Christianity, they became an emblem of evil. But one owl in particular has come to represent a modern-day battle between conservation and industry in the Southwest: the Mexican spotted owl.
The bird has been at the center of a decades-old conflict between timber companies and environmentalists. The pendulum of conservation has swung in one direction and then the other, with federal judges sometimes siding with environmentalists. But the state and federal governments more often than not have aligned with the concerns of those whose profit is hewed in the forest, environmentalists say.
On Thursday, lawyers for the U.S. Forest Service asked a federal judge in Arizona to undo a court-ordered freeze on all timber management practices currently barring commercial companies from what has come to be known as forest thinning, conservation projects and controlled burns to prevent larger wildfires.
U.S. District Judge Raner Collins has shut such companies out of national forests in New Mexico until the Forest Service can determine whether such practices are harming the Mexican spotted owl and its habitat.
The New Mexico Forest Industry Association estimates hundreds of jobs across the state and close to $10 million in revenue could be lost if the injunction drags on for six months.
Politically, the fight for the owl has in many ways been a proxy battle for the preservation of forests.
Listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, Mexican spotted owl numbers dwindled after a legacy of Southwest logging and cattle ranching.
The U.S. Forest Service came up with a plan in 1995 to boost owl numbers and prevent the bird from sliding into extinction, as the Endangered Species Act has required for many species, including grizzly bears and bald eagles.
At the time of the listing, more than 1 million acres of the owl's habitat had been lost, mostly due to logging, according to the injunction order signed by Collins. But "over 20 years later, delisting has not occurred and information about the current [Mexican spotted owl] population is still minimal," Collins wrote.
Due to the lack of federal funding for an intensive, large-scale population survey and the difficulty involved in tracking down the elusive brown-and-white mottled owls, Forest Service researchers all but abandoned the
project until 2012, when the agency came up with a new recovery plan. Some environmentalists still call it inadequate, though the Forest Service disagrees.
"There is not a shred of science about the impact of any logging -- mechanical treatments, thinning, whatever you want to call it -- on Mexican spotted owls," said John Horning, executive director of Santa Fe-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians, which sued the Forest Service over allegations it wasn't complying with the Endangered Species Act.
"We have no data on whether or not that's helping or harming spotted owls," Horning said.
The Mexican spotted owl likes to roost in broad, old-growth trees and nest along cliffs in the Jemez Mountains and elsewhere. It feeds on small rodents, whose habitat also has been threatened by logging and cattle ranching.
Owls were brought to the brink of endangerment after more than a century of old-growth logging in New Mexico and Arizona, according to a 1996 owl fact sheet from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
But experts disagree on whether ongoing commercial interests in the forests or increasing wildfires due to climate change now present their biggest threat.
U.S. Geological Survey research scientist Craig Allen worked with the Forest Service in the 1990s to study owls in the Jemez Mountains. The research was related to the original recovery plan, as required by the Endangered Species Act.
When Allen first joined the Forest Service, the timber industry was still largely focused on old-growth forests -- the largest and most profitable timber. But forestry practices began to change in the mid-1990s, with companies beginning to focus on projects they argued were both profitable and eco-friendly.
Fire, drought, heat and insects -- intensified by the impacts of climate change -- have become the enemy, Allen said.
A new study published this month in the journal Nature Conservation does not recommend any forest management strategies but argues extreme wildfires can have a devastating impact on the Mexican spotted owl. The study said "forest ecosystem restoration activities that reduce the frequency and size of large, severe fires could benefit spotted owls if these activities are conducted properly."
It's an argument echoed by some environmentalists, including Todd Schulke, co-founder of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, who agreed timber companies are much more environmentally friendly than in the past and often even help forest health.
Before the court battles of the 1990s, logging in Southwest forests "was quite intense," Schulke said. But that "slowed considerably," he said, after the legal battles and a similar injunction that lasted some 18 months before timber companies and environmentalists could reach a compromise.
In 1997, more than a century of heavy logging had left New Mexico forests nearly bereft of old-growth trees, according to a study from Forest Guardians, a former Santa Fe environmental group that preceded WildEarth Guardians and was at the forefront of the 1990s legal battle.
"The industry has shifted to a model that works better for these restoration activities," Shulke said, adding that more needs to be known about the Mexican spotted owl and increasing their numbers won't be a quick fix.
"This took 100-plus years for this situation to develop, and it's going to take us decades to get out of it. Let's get on with it. Let's quit playing games," he said.
In the meantime, letters from New Mexico officials and the forest industry point to a dire short-term economic picture.
In a letter from the New Mexico Forest Industry Association to Regional Forester Cal Joyner enclosed in Thursday's court filing by the Forest Service, association Director Brent Racher argues the injunction could cost hundreds of jobs and $9.86 million in lost revenue if it drags on for six months.
Racher wrote in the letter that most of the timber businesses from the 1970s and 1980s did not survive "challenges caused by regulations and agency requirements," and those that did have adapted their practices to focus on forest restoration.
"There's no bad forestry going on right now," said David Old, president and CEO of Las Vegas, N.M.-based Old Wood LLC. Old's company produces wood products for clients throughout the country.
Shayne Martin, a regional spokesman for the Forest Service, said the agency is "committed to protecting wildlife and communities from one of the primary risks facing public lands -- catastrophic wildfire."
Martin said the Southwest Region of the Forest Service has conducted population surveys since the revised 2012 spotted owl recovery plan, starting in 2013. He argued the timber practices it allows are not harming the forests or the spotted owls.
"We're not allowed to undertake a project if that's the case," he said.
The Forest Service asked Judge Collins, if he does not scrap the injunction, to allow timber activities "designed to restore healthy and resilient landscapes and watersheds that provide local livelihoods and valued products."
WildEarth Guardians founder Sam Hitt, who spearheaded the battle against the timber industry in the 1990s, said he doesn't believe the timber industry is now eco-friendly.
"That's been the rhetoric for the last 20 years, and it's completely bogus," Hitt said. "You can call it whatever you want. But if you're a spotted owl ... or any of the species that depend on close-canopied forest, it looks the same."
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