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
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
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. …