Environmental groups are resorting to questionable tactics to achieve their ends, and the practices must be stopped, a gathering of public land users from around the country was told in Sparks on Friday.

Sen. James McClure, R-Idaho, accused environmentalists of using the spotted owl as a surrogate issue under the Endangered Species Act to protect old-growth timber in the Pacific Northwest."That's the game being played," he told about 265 people at the second National Wilderness Conference. "They look at the spotted owl as a tool to attract support. It threatens success so easily that it needs to be taken seriously."

McClure urged Congress to amend the Endangered Species Act to forbid the practice, saying he believes the courts eventually will find the spotted owl "a lot less endangered" than environmentalists contend.

"We have none in Idaho," he added. "We shoot 'em coming across the border."

The Endangered Species Act prohibits any activity that threatens an endangered species, and the spotted owl's status is at issue in the court battle over old-growth timber in the Pacific Northwest.

James Burling, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, said the tactic dates back to the days when environmentalists used a fish known as the snail darter to block the Tellico Dam project in Tennessee.

"The spotted owl is the snail darter of the Pacific Northwest," he said. "They're also using caribou to stop oil exploration in the North Arctic. They're all convenient rallying points for those against progress."

Burling said environmentalists' fears over the snail darter eventually proved groundless and there still are plenty of the fish.

Burling's group was co-founded by former Interior Secretary James Watt to represent public lands commodity users in court test cases.

McClure also criticized environmental groups for resorting to court appeals to achieve their ends, saying the U.S. Forest Service cannot properly manage forests anymore because of the practice.

"There's something wrong with the appeals process and it must be fixed by Congress," he said, since environmentalists "can use the process to extort results they couldn't otherwise get."

Among other things, he said the threat of legal action forced the Forest Service to reduce the size of a timber sale in Idaho from 20 million board feet to 2.3 million board feet.

"The forester who told me about it said there would have been no environmental degradation whatsoever with the 20 million board feet," McClure said. "This is an example of what can happen with the appeals process."