Editorial: No winners in latest effort to save spotted owl

For nearly a quarter century, millions of acres of forest have been set aside as critical habitat for the spotted owl, devastating the timber industry so critical to Oregon and the Northwest.

Nonetheless, the owl’s population has continued to decline.

Now, 23 years after the owl was first listed as threatened, the federal response is to set aside even more forest land, doing more of what hasn’t worked in the past.

The new rules, which took effect in January, set aside 9.3 million acres, up from 5.3 million in 2008 and from 6 million in the original 1990 designation.

The American Forest Resource Council and several other groups have filed suit challenging the latest designation, arguing persuasively that more habitat won’t solve the owl’s problem.

The real threats, they say, are the barred owl and wildfire.

Ironically, the new rules could increase the risk of wildfire. That’s because the critical habitat designation limits thinning projects on those acres, leaving them full of fuels that make ordinary fires grow larger and more dangerous. The blazes destroy the very habitat the regulations were designed to protect on the spotted owl’s behalf.

The rules don’t prohibit all thinning, but they require costly and lengthy consultation that will make them less likely, threatening the surviving segments of the timber industry and putting jobs at risk. Several projects that were well on their way must be revised, according to forest resource council President Tom Partin.

The barred owl, meanwhile, has moved in from Canada and is thriving in the same habitat where the spotted owl is declining.

It will take at least a year or two before the lawsuit is resolved. During that time, jobs will be lost and fuels that increase wildfire intensity will continue to accumulate. But the spotted owl is unlikely to benefit.

What a waste.