Commentary: Decision on spotted owl habitat relieves landowners
By Peter Bradford
Recognizing stewardship practices by private landowners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed all private land from the critical habitat zone for the northern spotted owl.
For years, private timberland owners and the many people whose jobs depend on timber harvests have suffered as regulations intended to benefit the environment have added layers of restrictions onto harvests and reduced the amount of timber available to be produced in California.
Those of us who live in timber country have witnessed first-hand the impacts to our communities from the lack of active forest management that has worsened fire danger and created more environmental problems.
But during the last few months of 2012, a pair of significant developments gave hope to family timber farmers that the regulatory burden has begun to ease, at least a little.
First came the governor's signature on Assembly Bill 1492, which brought significant reform to the timber harvest planning process. Ag Alert® has reported on the new law several times: Among other things, it extends the length of a timber harvest plan from five years to seven years and limits wildfire liability for landowners neighboring government-owned lands. We think it will go a long way toward making California-grown timber more competitive and benefit jobs in rural communities that suffered under the former rules.
The other development came just before Thanksgiving and didn't receive as much notice, but it also represents a victory for landowners who have sought more reasonable regulations.
Since 1990, Endangered Species Act protections for the northern spotted owl have had a drastic impact on rural communities that depend on the management of forest resources. Agencies reduced timber harvest, saying that was needed to preserve spotted-owl habitat. Decreased timber harvest linked to spotted owl protection has cut jobs and reduced forest revenues that local communities depended upon for roads and schools.
That's why Farm Bureau was pleased when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized its proposed critical habitat for the northern spotted owl. Recognizing the stewardship practices that private landowners use to protect forestland, the service removed all private land from the habitat required for the owl's recovery. In all, the final designation reduced the amount of land designated as critical habitat in California, Oregon and Washington by 4.2 million acres, compared to earlier proposals.
Farm Bureau believes privately owned California timberland should be excluded from the habitat designation for a number of reasons, and we welcome the agency's decision to do so. California private timberland already provides excellent habitat that a robust population of northern spotted owls has routinely used for many years. In addition, the rigorous review of state timber harvest plans provides effective protection for spotted owls and other forest resources.
The Fish and Wildlife Service announcement on the spotted owl included other encouraging aspects. For example, the service identified active management to improve forest health as a key priority in achieving spotted-owl recovery.
Too often, the fuels reduction that is desperately needed on federal lands—and especially national forests—is hindered by environmental analyses and outdated assumptions. Northern spotted owl habitat faces much higher risk from wildfire in California than from timber harvest, perhaps more than any other factor. The U.S. Forest Service and other land-management agencies already impose significant regulations that address species and environmental concerns.
It is vital that the critical habitat designation doesn't further hinder the ability to manage national forests properly. At this point, it's too early to know what impacts the critical habitat designation will have on the 1 million acres of public land designated in Northern California, but we hope the Forest Service recognizes the importance of active management and does not permit the critical habitat designation to halt projects that are important to forest health, timber production and the families, industry and communities that rely on the processing of those forestry resources.
Another significant part of the Fish and Wildlife Service habitat plan was its decision to include a strategy to manage barred owls. The service recognizes competition from barred owls as one of the main threats to the spotted owls' continued survival.
Barred owls have been moving westward from their original range in the eastern United States, and now outnumber spotted owls in many parts of the spotted owls' native range. That's a big problem for spotted owls, because barred owls are larger, more aggressive and more adaptable.
"They displace spotted owls, disrupt their nesting and compete with them for food," the Fish and Wildlife Service says, and notes that researchers have also seen a few instances where barred owls have interbred with and even killed spotted owls.
Because of the threat that barred owls pose, Farm Bureau believes the Fish and Wildlife Service should fully analyze and implement a final barred-owl management plan as soon as possible.
Farm Bureau will continue to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service and other government agencies to reduce the impact of spotted-owl protections. We're working with the service, for example, to help it better communicate its requirements and options for surveying spotted owls prior to harvest. We will also encourage the agency to focus on landowner incentives, such as those in U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs, to maintain spotted owl populations in California.
Private forest landowners are key to recovery of the northern spotted owl and they have succeeded in helping the owl in Northern California. Farm Bureau will continue working to make sure those efforts are recognized and promoted, not penalized.
(Peter Bradford, who farms timber and raises cattle near Boonville, represents Lake and Mendocino counties on the California Farm Bureau Federation Board of Directors.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.