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Originally published Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Spotted-owl recovery gets another look from Obama administration

The Obama administration signaled Tuesday that it wants to scrap a controversial Bush-era plan for spotted-owl recovery, asking a federal district court judge to let them rewrite it, rather than defend it against lawsuits from both environmentalists and the timber industry.

Seattle Times environment reporter

The Northwest's spotted owl has proved to be a barometer of the federal government's changing attitudes toward endangered species, and environmental issues more broadly.

Now there are signs the political climate surrounding the reclusive and rare owl is shifting again.

Obama administration officials signaled Tuesday they want to scrap a controversial Bush-era plan for owl recovery, asking a federal district court judge to let them rewrite the plan, rather than defend it against lawsuits from both environmentalists and the timber industry.

The development has environmentalists hoping they can turn back efforts to increase logging in Northwest forests while crafting federal plans meant to lift the owl's plummeting numbers.

"This is basically the train wreck that Bush left behind. And why bother to put the broken trains back on the track? You can just start over," said Dominick DellaSalla, of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, who served on a team that helped draft an earlier version of the owl plan.

Depending on how the plan is rewritten, it could jeopardize an initiative to more than triple logging in Western Oregon forests controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. And it casts into doubt a proposal to loosen restrictions on logging in owl habitat in national forests east of Washington's Cascade Mountains.

The timber industry's response Wednesday was muted.

"We just are uncertain how to interpret it right now, and don't really want to make a lot of comments right now," said Tom Partin, president of the Portland-based American Forest Resource Council, a timber-industry trade group.

In a court filing Tuesday afternoon, the government said it wanted to revisit both the plan for reviving the owl population and the designation of which Northwest lands are vital to the birds. Development and other work in that critical habitat is subject to more government scrutiny.

The spotted owl was listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1990, its numbers falling as logging claimed the older forests where it prefers to hunt and nest. In recent years, it also has been battered by the encroachment of the bigger and more aggressive barred owl.

The government asked U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, D.C., for 30 days to negotiate a deal with environmentalists and the timber industry on how to proceed with rewriting the plan. If it can't reach a deal, the government wants the court to allow it to start rewriting the plan on its own.

Government attorneys cited the earlier involvement of Julie MacDonald, a Bush administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Interior, as a reason for revisiting the plan. MacDonald quit in 2007 following charges from the department's inspector general that she repeatedly interfered with scientific decisions regarding endangered species.

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While MacDonald played only a small role in the spotted-owl plan, "It's the perception of involvement that has, I think, perhaps undermined some of the public's confidence in the plan. And we want to address that," said Joan Jewett, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency in charge of owl recovery.

The current case stems from a lawsuit by the timber industry, which argued the critical-habitat designation covering 5.3 million acres of federal land was too much. Environmentalists joined the case, arguing the government inappropriately shrank critical habitat by 1.6 million acres compared to an earlier map.

Environmentalists also have argued the Bush-era recovery plan was part of a broader effort to whittle away at the Northwest Forest Plan. That plan, issued by the Clinton administration in 1994, halted logging on most old-growth federal forests in the Northwest.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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