With as many as 80,000 timber jobs at stake, the heads of three federal agencies Friday asked for immediate talks with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss the short-term effects of a proposal to list the spotted owl as a threatened species.
"As you know, the livelihoods of many people depend on the ability of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to proceed with timber sales during 1989 and 1990," the three administrators wrote. "We want to assure those sales are consistent with the long-term protection of the spotted owl."The letter to Susan Lamson, acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, was signed by F. Dale Robertson, chief of the Forest Service; Robert Burford, director of the Bureau of Land Management; and James Ridenour, director of the National Park Service.
"It is imperative that we determine adequate protection of spotted owl habitat during the period prior to publication of a final rule on listing," they said.
Meanwhile, timber industry groups warned in news conferences held simultaneously in the West and in Washington, D.C., that economic disaster and massive layoffs loom as early as this fall - affecting as many as 80,000 jobs in Oregon and Washington by year's end - if action doesn't come soon to release some federal timber from court injunctions barring its sale.
The Northwest Forest Resource Council said that in a "worst-case scenario" the labor toll for Washington, Oregon and California could eventually come to 250,000 jobs in forestry and supporting industries. That worst-case scenario assumes that court injunctions based on the threat to the owl will be expanded to include other planned sales and timber already under contract.
A top U.S. Forest Service official said it might be possible to develop a plan for protecting the owl without listing it as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act. That law prohibits any federal action, including destruction of habitat, that could contribute substantially to a protected species' extinction.
"It's possible we could agree on a conservation plan that would preclude listing," said James C. Overbay, Forest Service deputy chief for national forest systems.
But environmentalists suing for the owl's protection have said they are not willing to compromise on having the owl listed as a threatened species.
The procedure for listing could take up to two years and it is unclear whether sales of billions of board feet of timber in Northwest federal forests will proceed while the process unfolds.
On Thursday, Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., and Rep. Les AuCoin, D-Ore., proposed a one-day "forest summit" in June to bring timber and environmental interests together with elected officials and federal forest managers and hammer out solutions to the crisis facing the timber industry.