A pair of Mexican spotted owl fledglings in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

A recent court-ordered injunction suspending all timber management activities on the Tonto National Forest in Arizona and several national forests in New Mexico and has been modified to allow the personal cutting and collection of fuelwood. The Forest Service will resume permit sales immediately.

Southwestern Regional Forester Cal Joyner noted, “We are pleased with this modification, which highlights the fact that we all want to do right by the communities we serve and reduce unnecessary burdens on communities that depend on the national forests for their sustenance.

“I want to assure you that we are committed to continuing our work to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat from catastrophic wildfire, and we thank you for your ongoing support, understanding and patience.”

The federal court’s ruling is related to the recent court-ordered injunction in the case WildEarth Guardians vs. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, et al, concerning the Mexican spotted owl.

Other activities, including stewardship contracts, timber sales, thinning and prescribed burns, remain suspended in order to ensure compliance with the ruling, pending clarification or modification of the injunction.

The national forests impacted by the court’s order remain open to the public for recreation and other activities.

“We are extremely grateful to our state and federal partners including the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, the New Mexico State Forestry Division, the New Mexico Governor’s Office and countless community leaders for helping find interim solutions,” Forest officials said.

For the most up-to-date information from the Forest Service visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/r3/mso.

A recent federal court order had halted all tree-cutting activities including forest-thinning treatments, prescribed fire and even firewood fuel permits in the Tonto National Forest of Arizona and Gila National Forest in western New Mexico. The order is also in effect on four other national forests in New Mexico.

Judge Raner Collins of the U.S. District Court in Tucson issued an injunction on Sept. 11 in response to a case filed by WildEarth Guardians, a Sante Fe-based environmental group, in 2013. The suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service alleges that the two agencies have not adequately tracked the bird’s population numbers or documented the impact to the owls from widespread thinning and logging.

“Whether or not the population is stable or drastically declining or increasing in one place and declining in another is totally speculative at this point,” WildEarth Guardians executive director John Horning told the Associated Press.

“As the decision explains, the Forest Service was required to implement a population monitoring protocol for Mexican spotted owl since at least 1996. It was expected that, within 10-15 years, management activities such as logging and prescribed burning that the agencies claimed would improve owl habitat, supported by monitoring that would show the species recovery, would enable its de-listing from the Endangered Species Act. Yet, as the decision states, ‘Over 20 years later, de-listing has not occurred, and information about the current [Mexican spotted owl] population is still minimal,’” Horning said.

Joyner, at the time of the court order, acknowledged the hardship that the implementation of the court order imposes on tribes and rural communities that depend on the national forests for their sustenance.

“We received information from the court ... that the five national forests in Arizona are not within the scope of the order as those forests currently operate under 2012 biological opinions, this includes the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab, Coronado and Prescott national forests,” said Shayne Martin, deputy director of communications and engagement for the Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service. The updated biological opinion documents apparently demonstrated to the court that these forests were taking greater steps to document the owls.

The court’s ruling means that the Tonto in Arizona, and five national forests in New Mexico — the Gila, Carson, Cibola, Santa Fe and Lincoln — must undertake new biological consultations for the owl and its habitats in order to meet their obligations under the Endangered Species Act. Currently, no tree-cutting activities are allowed in these forests.

For the Gila National Forest, that process is expected to take at least a year, according to a report in the Silver City Daily Press, and threatens small sawmills that remain in places like Reserve, N.M., located about 30 miles east of Alpine.

(The White Mountain Independent is a sister publication of the Payson Roundup.)

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