GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — The last building block of the Obama administration's strategy unveiled Wednesday to keep the northern spotted owl from extinction nearly doubles the amount of Northwest national forest land dedicated to protecting the bird by the Bush administration four years ago.
Still, conservation groups that went to court to force the overhaul said key gaps remain, such as an exemption for private forest lands and most state forests.
The full critical habitat plan will not be published until next week, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that 9.6 million acres of Oregon, Washington and Northern California will come under its provisions, almost all of it federal lands.
The amount is down from nearly 14 million acres proposed last February but still exceeds the 5.3 million acres proposed in 2008. The biggest cut came in private timberlands — 1.3 million acres. State forests covering 271,000 acres remain.
Following a directive last February from the White House, officials revised the latest plan to make room for thinning and logging inside critical habitat to reduce the danger of wildfire and improve the health of forests.
Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said it appeared the critical habitat plan and the previously adopted owl recovery strategy were back in line with the Northwest Forest Plan adopted in 1994 to protect owls and salmon.
"In restoring extensive protections on federal lands, today's decision ... marks the end of a dark chapter in the Endangered Species Act's implementation when politics were allowed to blot out science," he said. "The owl has continued to decline since its protection under the Endangered Species Act. Part of the reason for that is the loss of habitat on private and state lands."