During a recent trip from Grand Junction to Durango, I was coughing because of all the smoke filling the mountain valleys of Western Colorado. Over the past few years, we have almost become accustomed to it in the Grand Valley, though it is unusual for it to blanket so much of the entire region that people are coughing from Craig to Cortez. This year the primary culprit has been forest fires in New Mexico and Arizona, though in some years the smoke comes from as far away as California and even Mexico.
At least a few of the news reports mention the usually-taboo topic of the destruction of endangered species and their habitat by these catastrophic fires. 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 one news article said, “now crown fires in overgrown forests have become the greatest cause of unusual losses for the birds.”
Ironic, you say?
One of the oddities of endangered species enforcement is the unequal treatment of public and private landowners. Government officials point out that the vast majority of habitat for most endangered species is on private land. Thus, they can 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 one poster child of many. One forest fire alone (in 2013) destroyed at least 73 nesting areas – 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 our 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 the more recent Moonlight Fire.
What is fascinating is the government’s continued use of such species as a favorite tool, not for recovery of the species, 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 a decade ago, 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. So you might think those two problems would be among the top priorities of the Forest Service. You would be wrong.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has said 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 what has the government done to thin the forests and restore healthy stands of multi-aged trees? Not much. 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, research, green job creation, climate change, grant programs, and especially firefighting.
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, or how many there ever were, as I have mentioned before with other species. The issue reminds me a bit of the EPA’s double standard regarding its poisoning of the Animas River last month. It seems 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.
Maybe the State should simply sue the federal government for failing to manage forests in a manner that would protect wildlife habitat. That would certainly draw attention to the government’s own culpability in the decline of several endangered species, and perhaps begin to apply the same standard to public lands as to private.
Perhaps Congress would then cough up the money to do something about our dead and dying national forests.
(A version of this column appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel September 11, 2015)