Agencies, group take 'step forward' with Mexican owl talks

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Negotiations among environmentalists and state and federal officials in Arizona and New Mexico have resulted in a set of recommendations and other provisions that environmentalists say will help protect the threatened Mexican spotted owl while allowing forest thinning projects to move forward.

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Regional officials with the U.S. Forest Service say the new understanding made public Wednesday marked a positive step in an ongoing battle over the Mexican spotted owl. Environmentalists have complained for years that the Forest Service has failed to consider the effects of thinning and logging on the owls.

First listed as threatened in the U.S. in 1993, the Mexican spotted owl is found in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, parts of West Texas and Mexico.

“We’re all working to do right and this common understanding represents a big step forward,” said Shayne Martin, a spokesman for the Forest Service's Southwestern Region. “The Forest Service will continue to be open and engage with groups seeking more formal collaboration towards our shared vision for healthy forests, thriving watersheds and sustainable forest use.”

The provisions that came out of a series of discussions that culminated in June were enough for the Center for Biological Diversity to drop its plans to sue. The group in April threatened legal action, saying the federal government’s piecemeal approach to forest restoration presented risks for the owl. The group cited specific concerns about 13 projects in Arizona and New Mexico.

Owl habitat represents about 6% of the 1,406 square miles (3,642 square kilometers) of forest that are undergoing thinning and restoration treatments in the southwest U.S., according to environmentalists.

A work group consisting of the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona and New Mexico state officials and a coalition of counties in eastern Arizona agreed that information about projects involving Mexican spotted owls and their habitat would be made publicly accessible through a new standardized format.

The information will include current forest data, clear presentations of the number of large trees and canopy that will be affected by the proposed project, and detailed post-treatment modeling and monitoring.

Pending projects will incorporate the changes and will be part of a new regional habitat monitoring program, said Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. The monitoring plan is expected to be complete in the coming months.

Silver called it a landmark agreement, saying the large tree-dominated, upper-elevation habitat that the owls depend on will be better protected.

The projects covered by the understanding include work being done near Santa Fe, New Mexico; in the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico; the Black River Restoration Project in Arizona's White Mountains; and the Four Forests Restoration Initiative Rim Country Project on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona.

A separate case filed by WildEarth Guardians in 2013 is pending in federal court.

That legal wrangling threatened to stall the cutting of the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree and the cutting of firewood last year until the parties reached an agreement on what types of activities would be allowed to continue pending a final ruling.

The parties are working toward a settlement but it's unclear how soon an agreement may be reached.