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Follow science, law for spotted owl designation

Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield.” In an era of land management plagued by a perpetual cycle of litigation and burdensome regulations, the former president’s statement rings true. Closed-door litigation has led to the mishandling of our public lands while killing tens of thousands of high-paying jobs, as we have seen through the mismanagement of the northern spotted owl.

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Primarily found along the Pacific Northwest, spotted owls prefer dense canopy closures with mature trees largely seen in areas such as California, Oregon and Washington. In the 1990s, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service listed the northern spotted owl as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The owl’s critical habitat designation has been revised several times, most notably in 2012 when Fish and Wildlife designated an additional 9.5 million acres as critical habitat, including millions of acres of federal land that were not inhabited by the spotted owl.

Landowners, forest-product businesses and local communities raised concerns about the economic impacts this designation would have — and they were right. This flawed designation resulted in an annual loss of $66 million in worker earnings, killed nearly 1,200 jobs in the Pacific Northwest and led to a loss of revenue used by local counties for rural schools, roads, and hospitals. Meanwhile, the federal restrictions of a critical habitat designation prohibit many of the locally led land management and conservation efforts that effectively prevent catastrophic wildfires and provide for healthy forests. These same local stakeholders initiated a lawsuit, but the lower courts dismissed their concerns.

However, in 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld a common-sense decision in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that only the habitat of an endangered species is eligible for a critical habitat designation. This seemingly obvious clarification of the law empowered the Trump administration to revise the 2012 spotted owl designation through rulemaking, and in January 2021, Fish and Wildlife finalized a rule to free 3.5 million acres in Washington, Oregon and California from critical habitat restrictions, allowing local management to take precedence.

For the Pacific Northwest, this is rule is worth celebrating. By empowering our local and state governments, farmers and ranchers, conservation groups, tribes and other partners to collaboratively conserve our land and resources, we can create a safe habitat for the northern spotted owl, restore our public lands and spur economic activity for our rural communities. Unfortunately, the Biden administration doesn’t see it that way.

In blatant disregard of the Supreme Court’s ruling, on April 28, 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it was delaying the Trump administration’s final rule until Dec. 15, 2021, with plans to revise or withdraw the rule.

Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., led his colleagues in sending a letter to the Biden administration clearly outlining the detrimental impacts of delaying this decision and highlighting the gravity of keeping public lands under lock and key. As the letter states, “The Biden administration’s move to prevent the management of our forests will stop efforts to prevent catastrophic wildfires that can take lives, destroy rural communities and devastate the habitat of the owl — not to mention other wildlife.” Further, Bentz points out that more owl habitat was lost to wildfire in one national forest in a single year than over the course of seven years of timber harvests in 17 national forests. This delay is yet another example of cherry-picking scientific data to fit a narrative.

Far too often, the Endangered Species Act is weaponized by environmentalists, further entangling the bureaucratic red tape with a one-size-fits all approach at the expense of industry and the jobs they provide for the West’s rural communities. We cannot continue to blur the line between reality and rhetoric with the latter allowing policies to drive land management.

We agree with Bentz: We must follow the science and the law when it comes to critical habitat designations.

Rep. Dan Newhouse represents Washington’s 4th Congressional District and serves as chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus. Dan DeYoung is chairman of the Josephine County Board of Commissioners.