data knowingly faulty -'Junk science' cost
timber jobs and rural communities
By Audrey Hudson
March 13, 2002 - Forest Service
officials knowingly used faulty data of spotted owl habitat to block
logging in a California forest, according to court documents obtained by
The Washington Times.
The Forest Service did not have a
"rational basis" for halting the timber sale to Wetsel-Oviatt
Lumber Company, said the previously undisclosed ruling by Federal Claims
Court Judge Lawrence S. Margolis.
The timber company's lawyer, Gary Stevens,
called the Forest Service data "junk science."
The revelation of bad science comes on the
heels of other questionable actions taken by federal officials in the
name of protecting endangered species.
False samples were submitted into a
national lynx survey, and in other cases faulty information was used to
cut off water to farmers and to establish habitat in several states for
endangered fish species.
Compensating lumber companies for this and
30 other California timber sales canceled in the 1990s because of the
spotted owl already has cost the government $15 million, according to a
Forest Service document.
In addition, the federal government agreed
last week to pay Wetsel-Oviatt $9.5 million for four canceled timber
sales. So far the Bald Mountain timber bid is the only case taken to
Judge Margolis ruled the Forest Service
action was "arbitrary, capricious and without rational basis."
He also found that the officials knew their findings were faulty when
they ordered the sale canceled.
"The Forest Service therefore
breached its contractual obligation to fairly and honestly consider
Wetsel's bid on the sale," he said after the four-day trial in
Two Forest Service scientists used aerial
and satellite photographs to identify old-growth trees. That indicated a
"disturbance index" for spotted owl habitat — meaning
logging in 5 percent of the proposed sale area would affect the owl's
habitat. But the scientists did not verify their findings with a ground
Two reviews of the findings — one by a
private contractor and another by the government — said the analysis
was unreliable, but the timber sales were canceled nonetheless.
Ecologist Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman was asked
during the trial if she believed her assessment was valid. "I
believe that I attempted to conduct a valid accuracy assessment, but my
understanding since the time that I did that is it probably wasn't an
appropriate method to use," Mrs. Fites-Kaufman responded.
Previously, a government witness and
leading expert on the California spotted owl, Gerry Verner, testified
the study was sound. "I came away with the strong impression that
it was, in fact, within my gestalt notion of what suitable nesting
habitat is after having walked through dozens of places like this
throughout the Sierra Nevada and in other parts of the owl's
distribution throughout the West," Mr. Verner said.
As he drove through the forest, Mr. Verner
said, "I had the feeling I was never outside a stone's throw of
suitable foraging habitat at least."
"I said to a couple of fellows there,
'If there's not a pair of spotted owls occupying this site, I'll spring
for a Chateaubriand for two.' I was that convinced that there's a pair
of owls in there that has not, at this point, been detected yet,"
Mr. Verner said.
Mr. Stevens, who represented Wetsel-Oviatt
in the case, said the Forest Service bowed to pressure from
environmental groups and used the same erroneous data to cancel the
company's other four timber sales.
Other questionable actions have been taken
by federal officials in the name of protecting endangered species.
Last week, two federal investigations
harshly criticized scientists for submitting false samples into a
national lynx survey, although the federal government has declined to
prosecute or fire the biologists.
On Monday, the National Marine Fisheries
Service agreed to rescind critical-habitat designations for 19 West
Coast salmon and steelhead populations in a court case brought by home
builders who said the decision was based on bad science.
The National Association of Home Builders
(NAHB) brought the suit in U.S. District Court for the District of
Columbia and produced a "smoking gun" memo that said no
analysis of habitat was ever performed "because we lack
"When we make critical habitat
designations, we just designate everything as critical, without an
analysis of how much habitat" is needed for salmon population, said
the 1998 memo written by a high-level government official.
The designation challenged by NAHB was for
a geographic region encompassing 150 watersheds, river segments, bays
and estuaries throughout Washington state, Oregon, California and Idaho.
The House Resources Committee is holding a
series of hearings on the misuse of science in enforcing the Endangered
Species Act (ESA). On March 20, the committee will review legislation to
amend the act.