Owl data knowingly faulty -'Junk science' cost timber jobs and rural communities


By Audrey Hudson
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

     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 trial.
     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 1998.
     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 inspection.
     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 information."
     "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.

 

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