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Split Decision On Spotted Owl Is Inconclusive

So-called `God Squad' votes, 5 to 2, for plan that leaves both loggers, naturalists unhappy

THE Bush administration has taken a significant - if largely symbolic - step in fulfilling its pledge to add emphasis to the economic argument against preserving species headed for extinction. But in exempting 1,742 acres of federal timber land in Oregon from restrictions under the Endangered Species Act, a panel weighted heavily with White House appointees also ensured that the struggle over the controversial northern spotted owl is far from over.

Still to come are court battles over the US Department of the Interior's plan to stem timber-industry job losses while providing some measure of protection for the owl, as well as congressional action not only to preserve old-growth forests throughout the United States, but also to reauthorize the endangered species legislation.

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There were several key events late last week in the saga of the spotted owl:

First, the so-called "God Squad" (a panel of seven senior officials known formally as the Endangered Species Committee) voted 5 to 2 to allow logging on 13 US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) timber sale areas in southwestern Oregon. These are areas deemed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to be important habitat for the owl, which in 1990 was officially listed as a "threatened" species. It was only the second time in the 19-year history of the Endangered Species Act that such an exemption has been gran ted. (See accompanying story.)

Second, the Fish and Wildlife Service as required by the act, released a plan for the owl's recovery. This would prevent logging on 5.4 million acres in Oregon, California, and Washington State, but at a cost of 32,100 timber industry jobs - a disputed figure.

Third, Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan proposed an alternate plan that would save 17,000 of those jobs by reducing the protected area to 2.8 million acres - even though government scientists acknowledge there is an even chance this plan could ultimately result in the owl becoming extinct. That the administration itself is torn over the issue is shown in the "God Squad" vote. Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly sided with Oregon representative Tom Walsh in voting against t he exemption. And National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head John Knauss withheld his approval until the BLM promised a more comprehensive plan to save the owl.

"What's missing is a long-term solution," said Mr. Knauss, who provided the necessary fifth vote on the panel.

As many scientists and other forestry experts see it, the basic problem is that Northwest forests in recent decades have been cut down faster than the rate of natural regeneration - or the efforts to create "high-yield" tree plantations. This would have been true even without the spotted owl's problems, according to a recent study by the American Forestry Association

"Timber supply studies from as long ago as 1963 predicted a downturn in timber harvest levels and employment in the Pacific Northwest as old-growth forests became depleted in the early 1990s," states the report.

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"Protection of old-growth forest habitat will accelerate what was already set to be a difficult economic transition," said V. Alaric Sample, director of the association's Forest Policy Center. "But the protection of spotted owl habitat alone is not what precipitated this situation, and allowing the species to go extinct will not resolve it."

In fact, the owl is not the only so-called "indicator species" of the health of what environmentalists call "ancient forests." Such other animals as the redback vole, Roosevelt elk, and pilliated woodpecker also depend on old growth. And scores of migrating fish runs up and down the Pacific coast have declined in recent years (some dramatically), one reason being the effects of logging along streams and rivers where such fish spawn.

Nonetheless, the decline in logging and mill jobs has hurt many families and communities in the region. Timber industry officials blame environmentalists for "locking up the forest" with court challenges and legislative delays to timber sales from federal land.

Forest activists say they're just trying to get federal agencies to comply with environmental protection laws. But there are other issues related to the loss of jobs as well. For example, while timber employment in Oregon dropped 16 percent during the 1980s, annual timber output rose by the same percentage, an increase in efficiency due largely to automation.

Many big timber companies moved their operations from the Northwest to forests in the South. And there was also a steady increase in the export of raw logs, minimally milled logs, and wood chips for paper pulp (principally to Japan). This meant the export of jobs as well.

There are heavy political implications to all of this. Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood (R) used to be known as an environmentalist. But in testimony last week on re-authorizing the Endangered Species Act, Senator Packwood (who's running for reelection) likened the measure to "a freight train that rolls over every community in sight with no regard for anything but science." Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts (D) narrowly avoided a recent recall effort mounted by those who say she hasn't done enough for loggers and mill workers.

Meanwhile, forest rangers two weeks ago opened a special campground in the Cascade mountains for homeless families - mostly timber workers who have lost their jobs.

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