AFRC, Counties Challenge Delay to 2021 Northern Spotted Owl Critical Habitat Rule

The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) today joined the Association of O&C Counties and counties in Washington, Oregon, and California in challenging the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) illegal delay in implementing its 2021 critical habitat designation for the Northern Spotted Owl (NSO).

The 2021 critical habitat designation removed areas that are not habitat for the owl and have been set aside for timber production under the Northwest Forest Plan and federal law.  AFRC says a 2020 study indicates the prior designation has cost Pacific Northwest communities over a billion dollars and over a thousand family-wage jobs, while providing little benefit for species conservation.

“The 2021 designation aligns NSO critical habitat with federal law, modern forest science, and common sense at a time when unprecedented and severe wildfires threaten both owls and people from Northern California to Washington State,” said AFRC General Counsel Lawson Fite. “We are challenging the delay because it violates federal laws and wrongfully restricts timber harvests on non-NSO habitat.”

“The delay also restricts the use of active forest management tools that help reduce the risks of severe wildfires- the kind that burned over 560 square miles of suitable nesting and roosting spotted owl habitat in Oregon last year.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges USFWS failed to provide a lawful justification for the delay, nor did it provide the public with notice or opportunity to comment.

In addition to violating the Administrative Procedure Act, the delay extends the illegal 2012 NSO designation that restricts active forest management on federal lands that are not actually NSO habitat.  The delay also restricts management on Bureau of Land Management O&C lands that are required by law to be managed for timber production on a sustained yield basis.

“We do not understand why the Service continues to ignore the Supreme Court and try to lock up almost a million acres of non-habitat that are of no use to the owl.  We believe agencies and officials regardless of party must follow the law.  We also believe that ineffective restrictions undermine forest health and ecosystem integrity, not to mention wasting tax dollars.”

“It’s time to move past failed paradigms and pursue better outcomes for people, forests and wildlife,” Fite said. “The 2021 NSO designation recognizes that what’s good for our forests, is good for the owl and our communities. We oppose this delay and will ask the Court to implement the new designation.”

AFRC has been a part of a coalition of business, labor and counties that have been engaged in litigation over the 2012 NSO designation. This litigation, and a 2018 unanimous US Supreme Court decision, led to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s reevaluation of NSO critical habitat in April, 2020.

After completing the rulemaking process and incorporating public input, USFWS adopted the 2021 NSO designation that provides critical habitat over 6.8 million acres of federal land, not including National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and congressionally-designated Wilderness areas where logging is largely prohibited.  The 2021 NSO designation is comparable to the 6.8 million acres the USFWS designated in 1992.

The lawsuit argues the 2021 critical habitat designation was the product of extensive public comments and is consistent with the agency’s obligations under the Endangered Species Act and the O&C Act. In its request for relief, the lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court to vacate the USFWS’ delay and declare that the 2021 critical habitat designation is effective as of March 16, 2021.