I Want You – To Do My Job!

Friday’s Denver post featured an AP story about the catastrophic Arizona wildfires, mentioning the usually-taboo topic of the destruction of endangered species and their habitat. A good friend sent an email pointing out that “It’s ironic that litigation over Mexican spotted owls was the primary reason that forest management was shut down in Arizona,” while the Post article says, “now crown fires in overgrown forests have become the greatest cause of unusual losses for the birds.”

Ironic, you say? Ironic?!

One of the oddities in Endangered Species Act enforcement is the unequal treatment of public and private landowners. Government official are fond of pointing out that the vast majority of habitat for most endangered species is on private land. That’s because they want to force private owners to manage private lands for the benefit of the species, while officials smugly ignore the government’s own role in the loss of vital habitat.

The Mexican spotted owl is the latest poster child, of many.  As the AP article pointed out, 73 nest areas were destroyed by the latest fire – that is more than half of all the known nesting areas in that entire national forest. This is not an isolated or coincidental occurrence, either. In Colorado, the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire and the 2002 Hayman fire destroyed more than half the known Mexican spotted owl habitat in that State. The same fate befell the unfortunate California spotted owl over the past few years – fifteen identified owl sites incinerated in two 2005 fires on the Eldorado National Forest, and twenty more in that State’s 2007 Moonlight Fire.

What is truly fascinating is the government’s continued use of the spotted owl as a favorite tool, not for recovery of the owls, but for stopping human activity – even activity that would improve the habitat!

When the Fish and Wildlife Service designated the official “critical habitat” for the Mexican spotted owl in 2004, it said “Forests used for roosting and nesting often contain mature or old-growth stands with complex structure. These forests are typically uneven-aged, multistoried, and have high canopy closure.” In other words, they need healthy forests with trees of varying ages, not single-age stands, and certainly not dead forests. The agency said the two primary threats to the continued existence of the species were “even-aged timber management,” and catastrophic wildfires. The Forest Service has done nothing about either problem since that document was written, so the problem is worse than ever.

The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that the deaths of vast tracts of forest, caused by bark beetles, are at least partly responsible for the “alteration of habitat.” And the recovery plan called for action to head off that growing disaster: “Clearly, forest management that decreases forest density, primarily by thinning from below, will help to control populations of some of these organisms.”

So given these fairly obvious circumstances, what has the government done to thin the forests and restore healthy stands of multi-aged trees? Nothing. Instead, managers have steadily eroded the Forest Service’s budget for any and all timber activities, and spent billions on other “missions,” such as trails, campgrounds, research, studies, green job creation, climate change, and grant programs.

It is unclear how many spotted owls may actually have been killed by these giant wildfires – in fact the government has no idea how many there are, how many there ever were, or whether their population is increasing or decreasing. Nor is there any definition of what population would constitute recovery of this threatened species.

What is very clear is that the owls will continue to be used as an excuse to regulate and limit forest thinning, recreation, oil and gas exploration, and grazing. It is equally clear that any private landowner who purposely took action – or refused action – that resulted in the death and destruction of hundreds of spotted owls would be in deep trouble.

When I headed the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, I once thought the State should simply sue the federal government for failing to manage forests in a manner that would protect the habitat of the spotted owl (and numerous other endangered species). Such a lawsuit would certainly draw attention to the government’s own culpability in the species’ decline, and perhaps begin to apply the same standard to public land managers as to private.

Then-Attorney General Ken Salazar was reluctant to file that suit at the time, pointing out the difficulty in holding a government agency accountable for not taking some action. Maybe he was right. I am not a lawyer, but if you ask me – and any number of owls – lack of action is action.

Maybe Uncle Sam should point that finger at himself once in a while.

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8 responses to “I Want You – To Do My Job!

  1. Interesting post, Greg. I believe in doing whatever we reasonably can to save endangered species. But, I also believe in getting rid of bureaucratic hypocrisy. The feds should certainly have to follow the same rules and regs that apply to private landowners! And the irony that the owls died because the feds didn’t take appropriate fire safety measures is just too much.

  2. Touche’ – well put Greg.

  3. Greg
    It has been some time since our paths have crossed. I see you still have a clear perspective on the federal mismanagement of public lands. I have to wonder who is heeding your perspective?

  4. Another cogent observation, as usual, Greg. Where were the people now howling about overgrown forests when the Bush administration wanted to implement a meaningful fuels reduction program? Well, they were howling then, too, but about “loss of habitat!”

  5. You are probably aware of the Forest Service Roadless Rule process. Two of the alternatives include Upper Tier in which no control burning or mechanical manipulation will be allowed. This will put many of our mountain communities at risk. Trout Unlimited and The Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership are behind the loss of 2 million acres of Colorado lands to any kind of management. The Federal Government strikes again.

  6. Well, one way or another, the forests are going to be thinned. What a shame we’ve allowed a relatively small group of attorneys to limit our options to annihilation or . . . nothing.

  7. Thanks Greg for pointing out another example of government (mis)management, the law of unintended consequences, and special interest groups controlling public policy. Being a native Coloradan and an avid outdoorsman, I can personally vouch for the collapse of much of the coniferous forests in the centennial state as a result of old growth being decimated by pine beetles. This disaster has resulted in many trails and campgrounds being closed due to the potential of dead timber falling on public forest users. Decades of fire suppression and the banning of logging on national forest land has permanently altered the cycle of pine forests of destruction and then rejuvenation. Just last week I stood on a mountain top overlooking Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Reservoir, and Lake Granby and was stunned as the surrounding vistas revealed more dead timber than green. I fear that our mismanagement of our natural lands has left a legacy whereby our future generations may never benefit from the enjoyment I and many others have been blessed with.

  8. As long as the federal government is allowed to act like a bully, it will be a bully. You can’t reason with a bully. Other actions are required. (thought process by T Jefferson, words by J Martin).

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