'God Squad' to Decide on Owl in a Rare Proceeding, a Cabinet-Level Body Will Soon Move to Implement the Endangered Species Act. Hearings Showed Federal Mismanagement and the Spotted Owl's Decline

Article excerpt

RECENT government hearings to gather information for a decision on preserving the northern spotted owl involved minuscule figures: A tiny fraction of all the timber used in the United States each year (less than one-half of 1 percent). An even smaller portion of the land biologists say the threatened bird needs to survive. And a relative handful of jobs in an expanding regional economy.

But the testimony, which concluded in Portland, Ore., last week, is likely to have wide-ranging impact. It tests the power of Congress, courts, and federal agencies. And it could set the pattern for many other struggles around the country in which environmental protection and economic growth are in the balance.

The specific issue involves 44 federal timber sales planned for 4,600 acres of land in western Oregon controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the US Interior Department. Another agency in that department - the US Fish and Wildlife Service - has declared the land important habitat for the spotted owl, which has been declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Under that 1973 landmark legislation, such habitat must be protected. But the BLM wants to exempt those 44 parcels, which can be done only if it can show that no "reasonable and prudent alternatives" to the proposed exemption exist, and only if the benefits of the logging in that area outweigh the costs.

That's the determination to be made soon by the Endangered Species Committee, which is made up of the secretaries of Agriculture, the Army, and the Interior; the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers; the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and an appointee of Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts.

Among those who testified during the three-week proceeding was US Forest Service population ecologist Barry Noon, who cited "strong empirical evidence that the species is in precipitous decline." Mr. Noon also said new data show that even on BLM land designated as owl habitat conservation areas, only 36 percent contains suitable owl habitat.

Another witness, Anne Miller of the EPA, said the BLM's decision not to assess the impact of logging on owl habitat until after forest management plans for the year are finished violates the National Environmental Policy Act.

Other government witnesses supported environmentalists' contentions that federal agencies have been stalling on endangered species protection.

Ronald Sadler, a senior forest planner who retired last year after 33 years with the BLM, said the agency has been "liquidating in a planned and systematic manner" the mature timber on land in Oregon and California it inherited from the railroads in the 1930s. …