By Matt Simmons
The northern spotted owl (“NSO”) is an iconic species of the forest defense movement. And because of decades of activism and laws like the Endangered Species Act, timber companies are required to follow certain practices designed to protect the owl. But what happens when a private timber company decides to ignore those rules and CAL FIRE looks the other way? EPIC is there to call them out and make sure the law is followed.
When a private timber company in California wants to conduct logging in NSO territory, the Forest Practice Rules require them to explain to CAL FIRE what measures they are taking to avoid harming or “taking” northern spotted owls. Helpfully, the USFWS has prepared a document colloquially called “Attachment A” which details the best practices for private timber companies to follow in order to avoid take of northern spotted owls. These practices involve not logging around known NSO nesting and roosting locations, conducting numerous surveys, and leaving enough habitat for NSO to nest and forage in after timber operations conclude. The guidance isn’t perfect, but it gives timber operators rules to follow and does help preserve NSO habitat that otherwise would be logged. Under the Forest Practice Rules, private timber companies are allowed to let CAL FIRE know that they are following Attachment A and then proceed with their timber operations.
However, the Mendocino Redwood Company (“MRC”) has decided to invent their own rules. You see, Attachment A requires timber operators to map “activity centers,” areas of concentrated NSO activity, and protect those areas. Typically, this is a nesting area where northern spotted owls spend considerable time during breeding season. The thing is though, northern spotted owls don’t stay in one place their whole lives. In fact, they have been well documented to rotate between different nest sites and use different ones in different years. Researchers have even documented one NSO breeding pair using five different nest sites over the course of a decade. That’s why Attachment A makes clear that “[m]ultiple activity centers for an NSO home range are possible.” And that “[i]f one core use area does not encompass all known activity centers (current and historical), then multiple core use areas will need to be mapped and protected to avoid the likelihood of incidental take.” That way, loggers don’t harvest near nest sites that are only temporarily not in use or that have been reoccupied since they last conducted their surveys.
But the MRC thinks they know better than the scientists who wrote Attachment A. They have proposed their own alternative practice that protects only the most recent location known to be occupied by NSO. This direct violation of Attachment A has the potential to result in take of NSO because it allows MRC to log in areas that NSO may have returned to. This practice will also cause cumulative negative impacts on NSO habitat. Northern spotted owls do not build their own nests. Instead, they rely on naturally occurring nest sites like tree snags or other raptor’s abandoned nests. Imagine if every time an owl leaves a nest site (with the intention to return in future years) timber harvesters harvest the tree the nest site is in or the area around that tree. Eventually, there won’t be any high quality nest sites left for NSO to use. That means that this practice could seriously reduce the capacity for NSO on Mendocino Redwood Company’s lands to breed and raise young in the future.
Unfortunately, CAL FIRE has decided to look the other way regarding this practice. This is despite the fact that they are the agency responsible for ensuring timber harvest plans have adequate NSO protections. EPIC recently submitted comments outlining why this practice is both illegal and harmful to NSO (you can read the comments on our website). And we are hopeful that, now that they’ve been caught, Mendocino Redwood Company and CAL FIRE will cease this troublesome practice.