A breakthrough agreement allows free forest thinning projects to proceed without fear of a lawsuit on behalf of the endangered Mexican spotted owl.
The Forest Service has come to an agreement with several environmental groups who feared the thinning projects lacked a good plan to keep logging from finishing off the small owl, which nest in old-growth forest patches.
The “understanding” prompted the Center for Biological Diversity and the WildEarth Guardians to drop objections and lawsuits that had prompted a federal judge to put thinning projects on hold in Arizona and New Mexico.
The agreement will clear the way for the award of contracts to thin overgrown forest areas on the Tonto National Forest and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona, plus four national forests in New Mexico and portions of California. The Black River Restoration Project in the White Mountains was one project halted by an earlier court order.
The Forest Service essentially agreed to much more clarity about cutting any old-growth trees prior to approving a specific thinning project. The debate about the fate of the remaining, fire-resistant, high-profit old-growth trees has remained a nagging issue in restoration efforts like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative.
The agreement drew praise from all quarters.
“This landmark understanding provides better protection for this beautiful endangered bird and the rare, large-tree-dominated, upper-elevation habitat that the owls need to survive,” said Robin Silver, founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It is a wonderful example of conservation forestry and government entities working together to save wildlife and keep our forests healthy.”
Pascal Berlioux, executive director of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization, said, “Restoration and biodiversity partners have wrestled since the 1980s with how to merge the forest and watershed restoration focus and the Mexican spotted owl recovery efforts. This new work to protect endangered owls while mitigating catastrophic landscape-scale fire risk is critical to the future of the Southwest forests and communities. It’s a very encouraging sign that we can work collectively and succeed in protecting both rare habitat and endangered species.”
The Forest Service has agreed to present information on the owls and thinning projects in a standardized format jointly developed with its partners. The information will show the number of large trees and canopy cover affected by any proposed project. Pending projects will incorporate those guidelines and include monitoring of how projects affect owl nesting and foraging.”
Previously, a federal judge ruled that the Forest Service had based guidelines for protecting the owls from the impact of timber harvesting on various, poorly tested assumptions. The Forest Service only sporadically either counted how many owls used a given area or monitored how they fared afterward. As a result, the importance of large trees to successful nesting and the success of owls in foraging in the newly cleared areas wasn’t well documented.
“This new understanding represents our commitment to conducting sustainable restoration projects in a way that benefits all,” said Elaine Kohrman, deputy regional forester for the Southwestern Region of the Forest Service. “All parties are working towards similar ends, and through this collaborative effort we will all see better outcomes for forest health, wildlife conservation including the Mexican spotted owl, and local communities.”
“We are pleased to be a small part of a collaborative solution that protects the Mexican spotted owl and its habitat while allowing for an increase in the pace and scale of forest restoration treatments in Arizona,” said Arizona State Forester David Tenney.
The understanding represents a big step forward in the Forest Service’s plan to thin some 2 million acres of ponderosa pine forest in northern Arizona, including all the White Mountains and Rim Country.
A coalition of environmentalists, loggers, local officials and Forest Service officials hammered out the Four Forest Restoration Initiative approach a decade ago, by focusing on the small trees choking the forest and agreeing the leave in place as many of the remaining old-growth trees as possible. Studies show that the pre-settlement ponderosa pine forest in Arizona was dominated by maybe 50 trees per acre, most of them at least 24 inches in diameter. After a century of logging, fire suppression and cattle grazing, the forest now has about 1,000 trees per acre, most of them stunted saplings. The remaining old-growth trees represent maybe 1% of the trees in the forest. Because of that transformation, the entire forest is now prone to high-intensity, town-destroying crown fires that burn so hot the forest may undergo permanent change.
The Forest Service for years has maintained it remains free to decide on a tree-by-tree basis how many of the remaining old-growth trees more than 18 inches in diameter to leave behind. Environmental groups have pressed for more clear-cut guidelines, wary lest the Forest Service allow contractors to take too many of the remaining old-growth trees.
The spotted owl proved the key to perfecting that agreement when it comes to the old-growth trees. Studies suggest the owls prefer to nest in thicker stands of trees, particularly stands dominated by clusters of big, old trees. Most of those remaining clusters are in canyons, where previous generations of loggers couldn’t get to them. Alternative methods of logging have now made them more vulnerable.
A handful of studies have shown that owls do nest in clusters of forest with the largest trees — preferably those taller than 105 feet tall, especially if many of those trees are taller than 157 feet. They avoid areas dominated by trees less than 52 feet tall.
However, those studies also show that the kinds of crown fires that climb up the fuel ladder of the thickets of small trees and take out the big trees as well drive away the owls altogether. Therefore, the owl’s survival depends critically on stopping the plague of megafires and crown fires that have grown common in the overgrown forest.