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Seattle Times: "Obama administration wants new spotted-owl plan"

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The Obama administration appears to be backing away from a controversial Bush-era plan for endangered Northwest spotted owls.

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2008966135_webowl01m.html

April 1, 2009

By Warren Cornwall

Seattle Times environment reporter

The Obama administration appears to be backing away from a controversial Bush-era plan for endangered Northwest spotted owls.

The government, in a court document filed late Tuesday, signaled it wanted to withdraw the plan amid concerns of political meddling in its development by a Bush administration appointee, Julie MacDonald.

Environmentalists welcomed the news as a sign the Democratic administration is rethinking the government's approach to bringing the owls back from the brink of extinction.

"We applaud the government's decision to re-examine Bush administration policies. This is a victory for those who value sound government and scientific integrity," said Todd True, a Seattle attorney for the environmental law group Earthjustice.

The decision emerges from a case in which both the timber industry and environmentalists sued to challenge a 2008 plan meant to guide efforts to save the owls, whose numbers had been dwindling.

The owls, which depend on old-growth forests for much of their hunting and nesting, have triggered sweeping restrictions on logging on federal lands in the Pacific Northwest. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a string of blueprints for government action to help the birds.

The early versions were panned by several expert panels, and the final plan drew objections from environmentalists, who argued it invited too much logging, and the timber industry which argued it was needlessly restrictive.

MacDonald, who was a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of the Interior, left the agency in 2007 following a scathing report by the department's Inspector General, which found she repeatedly interfered with the work of scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

She served on a committee of top-level officials in Washington, D.C., that reviewed an early version of the spotted owl plan and recommended changes.

Tuesday's government filing asks U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan to halt further proceedings, while the government tries to negotiate the terms of a remand — essentially taking the rule back to redo it — with the groups involved in the lawsuit.