The last building block of the Obama administration's strategy to keep the northern spotted owl from extinction nearly doubles the amount of Northwest national forest land dedicated to protecting the bird by the Bush administration four years ago.
Still, conservation groups that went to court to force the overhaul unveiled today said key gaps remain, such as an exemption for private forest lands and most state forests.
The full critical habitat plan will not be published until next week, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that 9.6 million acres of Oregon, Washington and Northern California will come under its provisions, almost all of it federal lands.
The amount is down from nearly 14 million acres proposed last February but still exceeds the 5.3 million acres proposed in 2008. The biggest cut came in private timberlands — 1.3 million acres. State forests covering 271,000 acres remain.
Following a directive last February from the White House, officials revised the latest plan to make room for thinning and logging inside critical habitat to reduce the danger of wildfire and improve the health of forests.
Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said it appeared the critical habitat plan and the previously adopted owl recovery strategy were back in line with the Northwest Forest Plan adopted in 1994 to protect owls and salmon.
Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist for the GEOS Institute and a former member of the spotted owl recovery team, objected to plans to log and thin forests inside the critical habitat area, saying no studies have been done on how that may harm owls, which favor old growth. He added that one study shows it reduces the amount of prey available.
The federal government has been trying to balance logging and fish and wildlife habitat since the late 1980s.
The designation of the spotted owl as a threatened species in 1990 triggered a 90 percent cutback in logging on national forests in the northwest, and similar reductions spread around the nation.
Even so, the spotted owl has seen a 40 percent decline during the past 25 years, Fish and Wildlife officials said.
— Jeff Barnard, Associated Press