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Bush Bureaucrats Rewrote Owl Plan

by Dominick A. DellaSala

The Bush administration recently proposed a "recovery" plan for the threatened northern spotted owl that could allow increased old-growth logging in the Pacific Northwest. If you wonder how cutting down the forests where the owl lives would help bring the owl back from the brink of extinction, look no further than the Bush administration's track record.

Administration officials have a documented history of manipulating science to serve special interests. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service is publicly misrepresenting the process by which the draft recovery plan was developed, the scientific validity of the plan and the threats to the owl by continuing on the present course.

I served on the recovery team that submitted a draft recovery plan last September to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A short time later, the team was notified that a secret "oversight committee" in Washington, D.C., had rejected the draft and directed us to change the plan substantially, de-emphasizing the well-documented connection between spotted owl survival and its old-growth forest habitat.

The oversight committee included Julie MacDonald, the deputy assistant Interior secretary who recently resigned after an Inspector General's investigation found she had altered scientific conclusions to accommodate the demands of special-interest lobbyists.

The administration's recently released draft northern spotted owl recovery plan bears little resemblance to the one crafted by the recovery team.

The team recommended a strategy based on protecting owl habitat in a network of old-growth forest reserves. This approach was first employed in the scientifically rigorous 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, which also recognizes that the forest values most demanded by the public -- clean water, healthy salmon and wildlife populations, open space, recreation and ancient forests -- need to be protected.

One of the most troubling changes is that the administration's plan could reduce old-growth habitat by as much as 25 percent. At the same time, spotted owl numbers are plummeting.

Although the influx of the barred owl, a competitive species, is contributing to this decline, so too is the legacy of old-growth forest logging. The science is clear: Because the owl is rapidly declining from multiple threats, it needs more habitat protected in fixed reserves, not less.

It's time for the Fish and Wildlife Service to scrap the draft recovery plan and start fresh.

Next time, the recovery team should include independent spotted owl scientists who can work in a process free from political wrangling.

Credible science, not political payback, needs to determine what comes next for the owl and the old-growth forests that hang in the balance.

Dominick A. DellaSala is chief scientist and executive director of the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy and serves on the Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Team. A public meeting on the recovery plan is at 6:30 p.m. today at the Oregon Convention Center.

© 2007 The Oregonian

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