'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.

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.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Sadler said, "it became clear that the end of the old growth [timber] was now predictable with relative certainty, and that it was basically now or never if a representative sampling of functioning old-growth ecosystems was to be preserved."

Instead of adopting a plan creating a system of old-growth timber reserves, Sadler testified, senior Interior Department officials back in Washington (Reagan-administration appointees) ordered increased timber sales.

While the Portland hearing was under way, a United States House of Representatives civil service subcommittee heard another retired official charge that the US Forest Service had permitted illegal logging by manipulating scientific evidence and had punished employees who sought to bring such activity to light.

The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Gerry Sikorski, has asked the Justice Department to probe the charges of John McCormick, former head of the Forest Service's whistle-blower program.

As powerful as the "God Squad" is, with its ability to inject economic considerations into Endangered Species Act decisions, the outcome may be determined in federal court.

It was only when sued by environmental groups that the Fish and Wildlife Service reversed itself and ordered Endangered Species Act protection for the spotted owl, considered to be an "indicator species" for the health of old-growth forests. And it may turn out that court decisions based on legislation other than the Endangered Species Act - the National Environmental Policy Act, for example - will in the end determine how much land should be set aside for owl protection.

Late last week, US District Judge Helen Frye issued a temporary restraining order blocking 114 BLM timber sales, including the 44 on which the hearings were held. Judge Frye has scheduled a hearing today to decided whether she will issue an injunction in a case originally brought by environmentalists in 1987.

During the Portland hearings, the Oregon congressional delegation and timber industry representatives argued that loggers, millworkers, and others affected by timber-harvest cutbacks were not allowed to testify in person.

In response, Interior Secretary Manual Lujan ordered two more days of hearings to be held Feb. 12 and 13, during which those who wish to speak may do so.

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