The U.S. Forest Service is urging a federal judge in Arizona to undo a previous court order barring the timber industry from operating in all national forests in New Mexico and one in Arizona.
Attorneys for the agency filed a motion Thursday asking U.S. District Judge Raner Collins to alter the decision, arguing he had misapplied the Endangered Species Act, resulting in the “manifest injustice” of an injunction on all timber management activities — excluding personal firewood collection — in the Lincoln, Santa Fe, Cibola, Carson and Gila national forests in New Mexico and Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.
Collins’ ruling last month came in response to a lawsuit filed by Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians seeking protections for the Mexican spotted owl. In that decision, ordering a halt to all tree-cutting and other timber activities, Collins said the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to monitor the population of the bird, now listed as a threatened species.
Following a public outcry from people who had been relying on fuel wood from the forests to heat their homes — and requests by both the Forest Service and WildEarth Guardians — Collins modified the ruling earlier this month, allowing firewood permit sales to resume.
But businesses that collect and sell firewood and other commercial operations supplying forest products also have taken a hit from the judge’s injunction.
In its motion Thursday, the Forest Service not only requests relief for commercial operations but also argues the judge’s ruling offers no way for the agency to correct an alleged error found in a 2012 report it had conducted on the Mexican spotted owl and halts practices “designed primarily to mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfire to the owl and nearby communities until at least 2023.”
Attorneys for the agency called the judge’s decision a “legal error.”
They asked Collins to determine whether the Forest Service had “used the best scientific data available” in deciding the timber management practices it allows were not further threatening the owls.
In a news release issued Friday, the Forest Service described the court filing as a request to “either modify or further clarify its September order.”
According to the judge’s initial ruling, it’s still unclear whether logging, thinning projects and firewood collection also are reducing the Mexican spotted owl’s population.
WildEarth Guardians Executive Director John Horning said the Forest Service is essentially asking the judge to scrap his injunction and allow commercial timber projects to go on as before, despite a dearth of data on whether their operations and controlled burns have continued to harm spotted owls and owl habitat.
“We’ve told the agency we’re willing to release all sorts of activities that do not harm the spotted owl,” Horning said Friday.
He argued the Forest Service’s legal strategy only “delays any opportunity for consensus that a large suite of activities should be released from the injunction.”
The Mexican spotted owl was listed by the federal government as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, and the Forest Service has been tied up in litigation with environmental groups over the owl since the mid-1990s.
In a statement issued Friday, Regional Forester Cal Joyner thanked state and federal leaders for “helping find interim solutions” and emphasized that national forests affected by the court order are still open for public recreation.