ARIZONA — A federal court order has halted all tree-cutting activities including forest-thinning treatments, prescribed fire and even firewood fuel permits in the Gila National Forest in western New Mexico and the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona. The order is also in effect on four other national forests in New Mexico.
Judge Raner Collins of the U.S. District Court in Tucson issued an injunction on September 11 in response to a case filed by WildEarth Guardians, a Sante Fe-based environmental group, in 2013. The suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service alleges that the two agencies have not adequately tracked the bird’s population numbers or documented the impact to the owls from widespread thinning and logging.
“Whether or not the population is stable or drastically declining or increasing in one place and declining in another is totally speculative at this point,” WildEarth Guardians executive director John Horning told the Associated Press.
“As the decision explains, the Forest Service was required to implement a population monitoring protocol for Mexican Spotted Owl since at least 1996. It was expected that, within 10-15 years, management activities such as logging and prescribed burning that the agencies claimed would improve owl habitat, supported by monitoring that would show the species recovery, would enable its de-listing from the Endangered Species Act. Yet, as the decision states, ‘Over twenty years later, delisting has not occurred, and information about the current [Mexican spotted owl] population is still minimal,” states a press release from WildEarth Guardians.
“We received information from the court … that the five National Forests in Arizona are not within the scope of the Order as those forests currently operate under 2012 Biological Opinions, this includes the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab, Coronado and Prescott National Forests,” said Shayne Martin, deputy director of communications and engagement for the Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service. The updated Biological Opinion documents apparently demonstrated to the court that these forests were taking greater steps to document the owls.
The court’s ruling means that five national forests in New Mexico — the Gila, Carson, Cibola, Santa Fe, and Lincoln — must undertake new biological consultations for the owl and it’s habitats in order to meet their obligations under the Endangered Species Act. Currently, no tree-cutting activities are allowed in these forests.
For the Gila National Forest, that process is expected to take at least a year, according to a report in the Silver City Daily Press, and threatens small sawmills that remain in places like Reserve, New Mexico, located about 30 miles east of Alpine.
For the Tonto National Forest, it is unclear how long the shutdown might last, or how it might affect a recent request for proposals (RFP) for 20-year forest restoration contracts as a part of the 4-Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). On Thursday, the Forest Service issued an updated press release.
"In addition to fuelwood permits, the six national forests have also suspended all timber management activities, including stewardship contracts, timber sales, thinning and prescribed burns, in order to comply with the ruling. Each forest affected by the injunction may be able to provide customers with a potential alternative fuelwood options in their area."
Southwestern Regional Forester Cal Joyner acknowledged the hardship that the implementation of the court order imposes on tribes and rural communities that depend on the national forests for their sustenance.
"Our staff is exhaustively exploring every possible option to come to a quick resolution so that we can continue to assist the communities we serve," Joyner said. "While we are limited on the details we can share while we are in litigation, please know that we will continue to communicate what we can regularly, and we are grateful for your support, understanding and patience," he said in the press release.
The court order brings back painful memories of the shutdown of forest industries in the region after the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Forest Service in the mid 1990s to force the federal government to implement a recovery plan for the Mexican spotted owl.
However, some aspects of the recent injunction may be modified to allow for some forestry-related activities, as WildEarth Guardians has indicated they are open to discussing that possibility.
“While the Forest Service finally steps up to its conservation obligations and assesses how its management programs affect the recovery of the Mexican spotted owl as a species, certain timber projects will be paused in light of the judge’s decision,” explained Steve Sugarman, the attorney representing WildEarth Guardians. “WildEarth Guardians has already opened up a dialogue with the Forest Service to assure that this pause will be orderly, and that it will not unnecessarily impede the implementation of projects that are truly necessary for the protection of life and property,” the group stated in a press release.
Mexican spotted owls are among the largest owl species in the U.S. and they live in mountain forests in southwestern Colorado, southern Utah, New Mexico and along the Mogollon Rim and other forests in Arizona. The largest populations are in New Mexico and Arizona. The owl was listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993, when approximately 2,000 of the birds were believed to be in existence. A 2015 Monitoring and Evaluation Report produced by Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest documents 158 Protected Activity Centers (PACs) used by the owls on the forest. Seventy-eight of those were monitored, and 57 were verified as occupied by nesting pairs or juveniles.