The California Spotted Owl: A Technical Assessment of Its Current Status (the "CASPO Report"; Verner et al. 1992) said that the status of California spotted owls in the Sierra Nevada was uncertain but of concern due primarily to logging and fires. The logging threat to owls and their habitat lay in the implementation of clearcutting and other intensive, even-aged timber management practices that had only recently been introduced to the Sierran national forests. Such practices, unlike what had preceded them in the Sierra Nevada, removed too many of the large, old trees, dead snags, and fallen logs that seem to be critical components of the habitats of spotted owls and/or their prey. Clearcutting, in particular, turned owl habitat into "non-habitat." Switching to other timber management systems was a relatively simple way to remove the logging threat to owls. The wildfire threat to the spotted owl and its habitat, however, was more easily diagnosed than resolved.
The CASPO Report authors recommended instituting "interim guidelines" for timber management in Sierran national forests that would retain forest structures known to be important to spotted owls, and aggressively reduce forest fuels to protect the existing old growth/owl habitat from loss to severe wildfire. The CASPO interim guidelines were promulgated in 1993 and were the legally binding management direction for these national forests until the signing of the Sierra Nevada National Forest Plan Amendment Record of Decision.
The CASPO interim guidelines were substantially different from the conservation strategies recommended by many of the same scientists for the northern spotted owl, a related subspecies that inhabits old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest and northern coastal California. Inasmuch as the SNFPA FEIS and ROD represent something of a return to the notion of managing California spotted owl habitat just like that of its northern spotted owl cousin, it is imperative to recall the five important ways in which the situations of these two subspecies differ:
(1) There is no evidence to suggest that California spotted owls have suffered the dramatic decline in numbers and distribution that northern spotted owls have, whose numbers may have dropped by 60 percent since the Pacific Northwest was settled by Europeans.
(2) The forests inhabited by California spotted owls have been mainly selectively and partially cut, and do not "fall apart" the way Pacific Northwest forests do when partially cut, so that
(3) Logged Sierran forests have not yet excluded California spotted owls the way logged forests in the Pacific Northwest exclude northern spotted owls, making precise definition and identification of "suitable California spotted owl habitat" difficult. "We have no studies to show what sorts of forest stands can support self-sustaining populations of California spotted owls," wrote the CASPO Report authors in Chapter 1, page 18, of their report.
(4) Fire is a major threat to California spotted owl forests, unlike most of the northern spotted owl’s habitat, and fire’s inevitability precludes "protecting" owl habitat by merely excluding timber harvest.
(5) A habitat set-aside approach for the California spotted owl in the Sierra Nevada could not protect a large enough population of California spotted owls to buffer it against catastrophic events, such as stand-replacing fires.
This comparison paraphrases the CASPO Report’s "Evaluation of an HCA Strategy for the California Spotted Owl," Chapter 1, pages 18 and 19. Any reviewer wishing to quickly inform himself or herself on the California spotted owl/old forest/fire management dilemma would do well to read at least pages 18 through 25 of Chapter 1 of the CASPO Report. Of particular note are two passages:
"Because fire events and subsequent impacts on owl numbers are inevitable, we must maintain a balance between the rate of habitat loss to fires and the rate of habitat recovery from fires. . . .
"Given these circumstances, we do not find a case sufficiently compelling at this time to recommend setting aside large blocks of Sierran forests as HCAs [Habitat Conservation Areas, a form of reserve] for the California spotted owl. Instead, we believe the situation calls for several steps needed during an interim period to preserve for the future significant management options for owls in the Sierra Nevada. These are aimed primarily at saving the older forest elements that the owls appear to need for nesting and roosting, and at reducing the excessive build-up of surface and ladder fuels." (CASPO Report, page 19)
As alluded to above, changing timber management to discontinue clearcutting and even-aged forest management was a relatively easy decision to make. The CASPO Interim Guidelines accomplished that in early 1993, and the starting premise of the Quincy Library Group was to transform national forest management from clearcutting to more owl-friendly CASPO prescriptions in the northern Sierran national forests.
When the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP) Report was issued in 1996 and 1997, it also highlighted the fire threat to Sierran forests: "From the beginning of the SNEP assessment of late successional forests, it was clear that the threat of severe fire from the build up in fuels and decrease in fire periodicity in some types would be major considerations...." (SNEP Addendum, page 177) "Our analysis suggests that much of the pine and mixed conifer forest on the two national forests examined is currently susceptible to severe (stand replacing) fire if the stands burn." (SNEP Addendum, page 175)
At the end of the SNEP process, the team of scientists conducted modeled simulations of alternative management strategies and, based on the ecosystem analysis, suggested five goals for national forest management:
(1) rebuilding late-successional forests,
(2) reducing the potential for severe (stand-replacing) fires,
(3) restoring riparian areas and watersheds,
(4) reintroducing historical ecosystem processes, and
(5) producing a sustainable supply of timber in a cost-effective manner. (SNEP Addendum, page 179.)
Since the publication of both the CASPO Report and the SNEP Report we have come to understand that the real forest management problem is how to accommodate both spotted owls and a more natural fire regime in the Sierra Nevada forests. It is a fundamental question to which the Quincy Library Group believes it has formulated a viable, feasible solution that also addresses the other goals set forth by the SNEP and CASPO teams of scientists.
In repeated written and oral comments throughout the Sierra Nevada Framework and Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment EIS processes, QLG members have asked the EIS interdisciplinary team to analyze and evaluate the QLG proposal and HFQLG Pilot Project as a test of that solution. Yet the FEIS states plainly, "None of the alternatives that are analyzed in the FEIS fully and explicitly incorporate and analyze the QLG management regime." [FEIS Vol 1, Ch 1, pg 4] The FEIS’s intentional exclusion of the QLG proposal from consideration as an alternative represents a substantial violation of the purpose and spirit of the National Environmental Policy Act.
But to return to the issues surrounding California spotted owls, how does the SNFPA FEIS and ROD perform against the CASPO and SNEP sets of findings and recommendations? One concept that is present in both the CASPO and SNEP reports is active management to rebuild late successional forests and to reduce the threat of fires that produce lethal fire effects to large old trees and forest canopies. The concept of active management, particularly mechanical removals of forest fuels and fire ladders, is not endorsed — indeed, is barely tolerated — by the SNFPA FEIS and ROD. As is fully explained and explored elsewhere in this appeal, the FEIS’s fire analysis is flawed and improperly concludes that fire is not a serious threat to current forest conditions.
The defective fire analyses and findings are particularly egregious in their application to the analyses of effects on California spotted owls. Having participated in the SNFPA EIS process and especially in Sierra Nevada Framework meetings, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s California and Nevada Operations Office had great familiarity with the ID Team’s information and analysis of alternatives. Thus it seems reasonable to believe that the USFWS’s comments in its January 11, 2001, letter to Regional Foresters Bradley Powell and Jack Blackwell ("Subject: Formal Endangered Species Consultation and Conference on the Biological Assessment for the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment Final Environmental Impact Statement") reflect the Forest Service’s evaluation of the fire threat as well. As best as we can determine from the planning record, the fire analysis given to and used by the USFWS was more narrow than even the unreasonably short-term, 30-year fire record provided in the FEIS.
Page 67 of the USFWS’s January 11, 2001 "Formal Endangered Species Consultation and Conference on the Biological Assessment for the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment Final Environmental Impact Statement" contains a page-long literature review of ways in which Sierran forest species, structures, and fire-proneness have changed in the 19th and 20th centuries. But all that ecological information is thrown over by one piece of evidence from the national forests:
"However, the known number of California spotted owl sites burned in recent wildfires is low. From 1993 through 1998, only 15 California spotted owl protected activity centers (PACs) or spotted owl habitat areas (SOHAs) burned in wildfires. (Three of the 15 are known to remain occupied.) This represents an annual rate of loss of about 0.2 percent of the PACs and SOHAs on national forests in the Sierra Nevada over a 6-year period."
The USFWS comment letter
goes on to speculate about the reasons for such a low fire loss rate,
but does not mention that the 1993-1998 period includes five of the
seven wettest years in California history, including both recorded human
and dendrochronological histories, so maybe the fire losses those years
were atypical. This analytical lapse obviously affected the USFWS’s
conclusions about the adequacy of the FEIS’s alternatives. To some
extent, they have also therefore biased the Record of Decision in an
unjustified and unsupportable manner.
One critical information element missing from both the USFWS’s and the FEIS’s analyses is the fact that spotted owl habitats and the status of spotted owls within PACs and SOHAs have not been assessed or monitored in any systematic way since the adoption of the CASPO Interim guidelines in 1993. Many more than 15 PACs and SOHAs were also adversely affected by fires, drought-related mortality, and/or clearcuts in the years immediately preceding and succeeding the 1993-1998 period. The QLG specifically requested that the cumulative loss of spotted owl sites to fires and other causes be examined in the EIS analysis, but it was apparently not done.
Another important information element missing from the FEIS is the habitat/viability link that underlies the forest management allocations, prescriptions, and standards and guidelines of the SNFPA. Looking back on the scientific underpinnings and conclusions of the CASPO Report, there were major habitat uncertainties discussed, including the following clear statements:
"At the landscape scale, we see little in the overall distribution pattern of California spotted owls to suggest how we might distinguish between suitable and unsuitable habitat.
"We have learned much about particular stand attributes that are used selectively by California spotted owls, but we have been unable to connect them with studies of the owl’s reproductive success — or failure. We are still uncertain about what levels of canopy cover, tree densities and sizes, quantities and sizes of downed woody debris, and so on, are found where owls reproduce consistently and well. Only by linking demographic rates with habitat attributes can we eventually distinguish among superior, suitable, marginal, and unsuitable habitats." (CASPO Report, page 28)
Recommendations made by the CASPO scientists in 1992 include:
"Because an accurate determination of the suitability of owl habitat must be linked to the birds’ reproductive success (specifically, demographic rates), we believe that advances in dealing with these uncertainties will be most rapid when habitat studies are coupled with demographic studies. The specific details of what habitat parameters should be measured, how they should be measured, and at what scale, need to be given a thorough review by a team of experienced owl biologists, foresters, silviculturists, and others. Implementing these efforts should be contingent upon developing a fully interactive Geographic Information System (GIS) for each demographic study area, with layers of all relevant attributes (for example, vegetation types, locations of owl nests and roosts, hydrographic features, topography, and so on)." (CASPO Report, page 30)
Regarding the uncertainties associated with logging, including logging according to the CASPO prescription, the CASPO scientists wrote the following:
"Monitoring the effects of various logging prescriptions on the foraging, roosting, and nesting activities of spotted owls is an especially high priority. Analyses reported in Chapter 7 provide one model of how such studies can be done. If recommendations proposed in Chapter 1 are implemented to maintain options for spotted owls in the Sierra Nevada during some interim period, we consider it essential to monitor owl activities and movements before and after logging operations that follow those recommendations." (CASPO Report, page 29)
Unfortunately, the Forest Service did not take these recommendations seriously, because the careful research to reliably link habitat attributes or CASPO or other logging effects with spotted owl viability was not undertaken in the 1990s. Thus in the summer of 1999, the Forest Service’s Sierra Nevada Framework staff were tasked with developing "new science" to answer old questions without the benefit of the relevant information. The audio cassette tapes of a June 1999 meeting between spotted owl researchers and Sierra Nevada Framework/Forest Plan Amendment EIS ID team record a spirited discussion of the agency’s failure to provide owl scientists with accurate vegetation data in electronic form capable of being transformed into a GIS analytical tool. (Please see notes made while listening to the June 1999 meeting, Appeal Appendix D-2, especially pages 39 through 41.)
During the period of the CASPO Interim Guidelines, the Forest Service failed to conduct the necessary research and "obtain and keep current inventory data appropriate for planning and managing the resources" (36 CFR § 219.12(d)) related to California spotted owls.
In the wake of failing to have studied habitat relationships and to have monitored activity effects to reduce the uncertainties identified in the 1992 CASPO Report, the SNFPA represents the Forest Service’s adoption and acceptance of planned uncertainty as a reason and justification for doing next to nothing, not even implementing the CASPO Interim Guidelines. The ROD and FEIS both indicate that Alternative Modified 8 was formulated and driven by the uncertainty of the effects of management activities on California spotted owls.
To further strain the scientific integrity and credibility of the SNFPA’s conservation strategy for the California spotted owl and old-forest ecosystems, the FEIS’s presentation of the scientific underpinnings for the old forest and associated species conservation strategy lacks identifiable references, violating NEPA regulation requirements that EISs must make "explicit reference by footnote to the scientific and other sources relied upon for conclusions in the statement." (40 CFR § 1502.24) In four pages of Chapter 2’s "Alternative Development, Including Key Strategies Used in the Alternatives," there are 48 citations in the discussion entitled "Old Forest Ecosystems and Associated Species Strategies." Of the 48, 32 were either not listed in the References section (FEIS Vol1), or were ambiguous as to which of two or more entries were intended to be cited. Of the 48 citations, only 13 were clearly and correctly cited according to professional publication standards.
An additional challenge for the scientific basis for all the FEIS’s alternatives lies in the fact that this portion of the FEIS provides no references to support the following elements of the alternatives:
(1) selection of landscape-scale old forest desired conditions (FEIS Vol1, Ch2, pg8);
(2) "reserves (saving natures legacy, ecological basis of conservation" (ibid.);
(3) quantity, quality, and spatial arrangement of habitat to sustain viable populations of old forest associated species (ibid.); and
(4) rate and means used to reduce fire hazard (FEIS Vol1, Ch2, pg9).
Even if the scientific and NEPA documentation deficiencies just described had somehow been corrected or resolved prior to the ROD, the California spotted owl conservation strategy has failed NEPA and NFMA procedurally in that it was not developed in an integrated and
interdisciplinary manner, which led to mutual inconsistencies between owl habitat direction, fire and fuels objectives, and riparian standards and guidelines. Several such problems have been identified over the past six months by the Washington Office Review Team, the hastily conducted Science Consistency Check, and numerous individual PSW and academic scientists working with the Framework staff. The SNFPA planning record contains ample documentation of reviewers pointing out chronic internal inconsistencies arising from the non-integrated NEPA process. The FEIS and ROD violate forest planning requirements at 36 CFR §§ 219.1(b)(2) through (b)(10), and 219.5 as well as NEPA implementing rules at 40 CFR §§ 1500.2(c), 1501.2(a), and 1502.6.
Furthermore, because there was no supplemental draft EIS circulated to the public containing the spotted owl conservation strategy and other non-circulated portions of the EIS prior to issuance and adoption of the FEIS, the SNFPA ROD violates NEPA’s public disclosure and comment requirements. The SNFPA planning record has multiple entries since July 2000 (while the draft EIS comment period was running) that document how the environmental impacts analyses for the California spotted owl and its viability determination had not yet been made, because there was an ongoing interagency negotiation over what standards and guidelines should be written for the alternative to be adopted by the Regional Foresters, what data sets and methods of analysis to use, etc.
Examination of the following items from the SNFPA planning record reflect the unfinished condition of the spotted owl management strategy long after the public review and comment period of the draft EIS had been over:
Internal Workshop Review Team Draft Progress Report, Initial Meeting in Sacramento July 26-28 [ID 1664]
California Spotted Owl Conservation Strategy Discussion, Sierra Nevada Framework Team, November 2, 2000 (agenda) [ID 1667]
Outline for Species-At-Risk Effects Analysis in Sierra Nevada Project FEIS, Chris Iverson, 10/2/00 [ID 1666]
E-mail dated 22 Nov 2000 from Frank Davis to Jo Ann Fites re: composition comments [ID 1502]
E-mail dated 22 Nov 2000 from Frank Davis to Jo Ann Fites re: FIA data questions [ID 1503]
E-mail dated 27 Nov 2000 from Barry R. Noon to Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman re: response to final EIS questions [ID 1504]
Memo dated 11/28/00 from Barry R. Noon to Jo Ann Fites re: Comments on the 11/15/00 Draft California Spotted Owl Conservation Strategy: Standards and Guidelines [ID 1661 and 1400]
E-mail dated 01/04/2001 from Bill Laudenslayer to Brad Powell re: an owl meeting conducted at the SNFP Framework Office on January 3, 2001
Letter dated January 11, 2001 from Danny Lee to Kent Connaughton and Peter Stine and attachment, "Supplemental Analysis of Relations Between Occurrence and Productivity of California Spotted Owls and Canopy Cover in the Sierra National Forest." [Appeal appendix C]
In spite of redrafting and adjusting the selected alternative until the last few days before the Record of Decision was signed, the California spotted owl conservation strategy is still incoherent, incompatible with other resource directions, and violates NEPA by having not been circulated for public review and comment prior to adoption.