Feds: Owl suit raises fire risk

"They're using the fire threat just as they used the claims of weapons of mass destruction to push the whole political spectrum to the right."
Kieran Suckling , Center for Biological Diversity

By Mitch Tobin


Arizona - A Tucson environmental group's lawsuit to protect Mexican spotted owls threatens to boost wildfire risks on millions of acres in the Southwest, including parts of Southern Arizona, federal officials said.

The lawsuit, quietly filed by the Center for Biological Diversity last month, seeks to hold Interior Secretary Gale Norton in contempt of court. If successful, the suit could block scores of tree-cutting projects meant to thin overgrown forests suspectible to devastating canopy fires, officials said.

"We are very concerned, during the ongoing drought in the Southwest, that any delays in treating forest areas to reduce high fuel loads could put human life and property at risk of catastrophic wildfires," Dale Hall, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwest region, said in a written statement.

The center - which has repeatedly clashed with Fish and Wildlife - counters that the agency continues to drag its feet in mapping habitat for the owl, listed as a threatened species by the federal government in 1993.

It says federal officials sent reporters a "wildly exaggerated" press release about the suit to discredit the center and to hype wildfire risks so the Bush administration can gut environmental protections.

"They're using the fire threat just as they used the claims of weapons of mass destruction to push the whole political spectrum to the right," center Executive Director Kieran Suckling said.

The conflict comes as Congress is debating bills meant to increase funding for forest thinning and curtail environmentalists' ability to legally challenge such projects because of endangered species concerns.

Suckling said his group -which he acknowledged "is not media-shy at all" - didn't publicize its suit against Norton because it didn't want to upset private negotiations with the Interior Department.

The center was willing to let Fish and Wildlife delay its mapping of owl habitat for 15 months beyond a court-ordered deadline if the agency would speed up action on other species, according to a July 15 letter from the center's attorneys. The other species include three birds found in Southern Arizona - the pygmy owl, the Southwestern willow flycatcher and the yellow-billed cuckoo.

"I'm furious. Why, in the future, should I negotiate?" Suckling said. "This has eroded any semblance of trust that still existed, and that's really bad news for everyone concerned about endangered species."

The suit deals with one of the largest owls in North America and a relative of the spotted owls at the heart of the Pacific Northwest's timber wars of the 1980s and 1990s. The Mexican spotted owl, which primarily preys on small mammals that are active at night, lives in the forests of the Four Corners states and in Mexico.

In 2000, under the Clinton administration, Fish and Wild-life mapped critical habitat - areas considered important to the species that can face additional regulation - on 13.5 million acres in the Southwest, including 4.9 million acres in Arizona.

A year later, the Bush administration revised that to 4.6 million acres in the region and 831,000 acres in Arizona, leaving out national forests and tribal land. But in a harshly worded Jan. 13 ruling, U.S. District Judge David Bury called that plan "nonsensical" and ordered a new habitat map by Oct. 13.

Fish and Wildlife says it asked for an extension until January 2005 because of "lean budgets" and a backlog of court-ordered actions, many initiated by the Tucson environmental center. But Suckling said the government wants an indefinite delay and argues that federal officials have purposely underfunded the critical habitat program to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

The dispute over habitat mapping prompted the center's Sept. 11 lawsuit against Norton and led Fish and Wildlife to file its own 30-page declaration in federal court Wednesday. The agency, which administers the Endangered Species Act for non-marine creatures, said:

* Thinning may be blocked in 17 areas managed by the National Park Service covering 5.1 million acres, including Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park, Chiricahua National Monument, Coronado National Memorial and Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

* The Bureau of Land Management's plan to implement President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative on 2.3 million acres in Arizona could be stalled.

* Treatment of 1.2 million acres of national forests in Arizona and New Mexico could be delayed.

The Coronado National Forest near Tucson has altered the timing of its fuels projects because of the owl, but the species hasn't blocked such work, said Dean McAlister, the forest's fire management officer.

"By and large," he said, "the Fish and Wildlife Service views fuels treatment work as a positive thing for the owls because they'd much rather have an area thinned than go up in smoke like on Mount Lemmon."

The center's suit "probably won't affect most of our fuels projects," he said, but it could affect grazing, construction and other work on the Coronado that's in owl habitat, he said.

Since 2001, Fish and Wildlife has signed off on nearly 300 thinning projects on 1.9 million acres of national forests in the Southwest. But it says the owl issue may delay some of those to 2006 if they haven't begun yet and affect new proposals.

"There's a chunk that are free to go forward, but there's a sizable amount that are not," Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jeff Humphrey said.

Suckling, however, said his group recently met with Interior lawyers and "told them directly we'd allow all legitimate thinning and forest health programs to go forward."

"We've always supported those and have no intention of shutting them down," he said.


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