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‘God Squad’ Considers Endangered Species Act Exemption

February 3, 1992

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ A Cabinet-level committee faces the decision whether to grant a loophole in the Endangered Species Act to save logging jobs or maintain protections imposed to preserve the habitat of the threatened northern spotted owl.

Three weeks of expert testimony and intense cross-examination on the issue ended in Portland last week.

The committee, popularly known as the ″God Squad,″ will review the evidence this spring before deciding whether to grant the first-ever exemption to the 19-year-old law protecting threatened species.

The hearings were part of a larger battle over the Northwest’s old-growth forests.

Timber interests advocate renewed logging, saying the future of their industry depends on it. Environmentalists say the owls cannot survive unless tree-cutting is halted.

Specifically, the Endangered Species Committee will decide whether to allow the federal Bureau of Land Management to sell timber on 44 tracts of federal land scattered over 4,500 acres in western Oregon. BLM Director Cy Jamison sought the exemption.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invoked the law to stop the sales on grounds they would destroy spotted owls’ so-called dispersal habitats - forests that allow them to hide from predators such as goshawks and great horned owls while flying to new nesting areas.

Pat Parenteau, a lawyer representing Fish and Wildlife, pointed to testimony from forest service ecologist Barry Noon, who said the owls were worse off than earlier believed.

″His conclusion that timber harvesting on BLM lands essentially has to cease for the owl to have any chance for recovery was probably the most dramatic testimony of the whole proceeding,″ Parenteau said.

Mark Rutzick, a lawyer for timber companies, disagreed.

″No one testified that the spotted owl would suffer any significant impairment if the sales were sold,″ he said.″The testimony has been very vague and generalized and didn’t deal with these timber sales at all.″

Rutzick said the timber sales would produce 3,000 jobs. If the sales remain blocked, American consumers will pay $500 million in higher prices, he said.

But Parenteau said the BLM failed to prove that the 219 million board feet of timber at stake was economically significant, when the nation uses 50 billion board feet annually.

To grant an exemption, the committee must find that the BLM had ″no reasonable and prudent alternatives,″ that the sales would be economically significant, and the benefits of logging would outweigh the value of the habitat.

″In the end, it’s a policy decision,″ said Parenteau, who was involved in the two earlier God Squad proceedings. ″That makes it unpredictable.″

The committee is made up of seven members, including Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan and Army Secretary Michael Stone. Also on the panel are the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one person nominated by Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts.

This is only the third time since the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973 that the God Squad has been convened to consider an exemption.

An exemption for construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee was denied in favor of a small fish called the snail darter. And the proposed Greyrocks Dam on the Wyoming-Nebraska line was turned down for one of the first species to be declared endangered, the whooping crane.

Lujan convened the God Squad, saying he hoped it would bring an end to the long battle over the Northwest’s forests. But the timber sales in question are only part of the conflict raging over federal lands in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

Environmentalists have won a series of victories in lawsuits charging the BLM and the Forest Service routinely violated the nation’s environmental laws in planning timber sales in spotted owl habitat.

Last week, a federal judge in Portland blocked BLM timber sales in spotted owl habitat in Oregon because the agency failed to write an environmental impact statement.

Environmentalists said the ruling could make moot whatever the God Squad does, because it covers the same timber sales, but is based on a different law, the National Environmental Policy Act.

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