Mexican spotted owl lawsuit puts National Forests on hold

A decision in federal District Court last month granted an injunction of timber management actions by the U.S. Forest Service in the Lincoln, Santa Fe, Cibola, Carson, Tonto and Gila National Forests.

In the East Mountains, the Cibola National Forest manages the Sandia and Mountainair ranger districts.

Activities that were halted included timber sales, stewardship contracts, prescribed burns, and “commercial and personal-use forest product permits.” A subsequent modification of the court order on Oct. 1 allows personal cutting of fuelwood for those who hold a permit.

Chris Gomez, a woodcutter from Estancia, told The Independent he has been working in the Mountainair Ranger District with his father and grandfather his entire life.

“All around [Tajique], pretty much everybody does it out here. That’s what our work is,” Gomez said. “We cut all summer; we have the piles. The wood’s there. The thing is come December, January when we run out, that’s when we’re going to feel it, middle of winter.”

He said they get permits that allow up to eight cords of wood to be removed from the forest.

Gomez said during the few weeks when the forest was restricted to all wood removal, they had to go to Bureau of Land Management lands for wood.

“You’re talking a hundred-mile round trip, and gas prices,” Gomez said. “The thing is, the price of the wood is going to have to go up, $300, $350 a cord.” He said it was previously sold for around $200. “It’s probably affecting everybody.”

Gomez said his income has gone down because customers can’t afford the higher price. “Bring me half a cord instead of three or four cords, you know what I mean?”

Customers in Tajique’s barbershop, which is heated by wood, voiced concern for people who cannot cut their own wood, those too old or without the necessary tools. One customer said his grandmother still cooks with a wood stove. And everyone talked about facing winter without enough wood.

Antonio Garcia, who sells wood cutting permits at the Sandia Ranger District in Tijeras, said the residential permits sell for $5 per cord with four cords minimum and eight cords maximum.

“There’s designated cutting areas we sell the permits for,” Garcia said. “They’re only allowed to get the down-and-dead wood with the permit.”

He explained there is also “decked wood” from “projects like forest thinning,” which are trees that have been limbed and stacked.

According to WildEarth Guardians, the group sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for “failure to ensure the recovery of the [Mexican spotted] owl by collecting basic information, for more than 20 years.”

The court order halted forest management activity until the “issuing of superseding [biological opinions].”

The two sides have been ordered to “reinitiate formal consultation,” and create a new plan for recovery of the owl.

At question is the number of Mexican spotted owls, which was listed as a threatened species in 1993. A recovery plan was developed by Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012.

The court said, “The Mexican Spotted Owl is an elusive creature, making it conceptually and financially difficult to track despite provisions in the 2012 Biological Opinions (‘BiOps’) recommending population monitoring.”

The court goes on to say, “Because of this quandary, United States Forest Service and United States Fish and Wildlife Service have been unable to conduct range-wide population monitoring, a measure necessary to remove the [Mexican spotted owl] from the listing of threatened species.”

According to the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, their efforts to monitor the owls began in 2014 and saw a rise in site occupancy, until 2016; then saw a decline through 2018.

Their publication, “Site Occupancy by Mexican Spotted Owls in the US Forest Service Southwestern Region, 2018,” says the owls were located when they responded to recorded calls, and could be identified as male, female or juvenile by their call.

According to the court, the 1993 listing of the owl recognized the loss of an estimated one million acres of suitable habitat where the owls “nest and forage in canyons and on mountains with mature-growth forests consisting primarily of high, enclosed, thick, multilayered canopies with uneven-aged tree stands,” and three fourths of that loss is due to “contemporary timber management practices, specifically even-aged silviculture.”

“A recovery plan was created in 1995, but “over twenty years later, delisting has not occurred, and information about the current [Mexican spotted owl] population is still minimal,” the court decision said.

“The Court finds that USFS timber management actions (including timber harvesting) causes irreparable harm which cannot proceed. … It has been demonstrated over the past 20 years that the status quo will not lead to recovery of the listed species,” the ruling says.

John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, said, “This decision is about agency accountability, to the public and to the recovery of the Mexican Spotted Owl.”

In addition to personal use permits issued by the ranger districts, firewood permits can be obtained from the Bureau of Land Management for $10 to $12 per cord of piñon and juniper deadwood from designated areas. Visit blm.gov for more information.