Lujan Suggests Skirting Wildlife Laws To Ease Northwest Logging Job Losses With AM-Spotted Owl-Logging

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Convinced that compliance with environmental laws will cost too many jobs in the Northwest, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. is pursuing a spotted owl protection plan that would skirt the Endangered Species Act.

Lujan said in an internal memo obtained Wednesday that because of ''our nation's broad concerns about the economy'' he wants to consider protection options that would not necessarily comply with existing wildlife laws.

His desire to come up with a plan short of the federal mandates marks a dramatic departure from the way the government protects threatened and endangered species.

''I am fully aware that the Endangered Species Act does not encourage such management options and that their implementation would first require congressional action,'' Lujan said in the memo dated Feb. 14.

Meanwhile, in Portland, Ore., on Wednesday, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday blocking all logging in old-growth forests on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property because of danger to the northern spotted owl's habitat.

U.S. District Judge Helen Frye issued the injunction in a long-standing lawsuit by several environmental groups.

BLM spokesman Ed Ciliberti said the injunction will stop nearly all of his agency's timber sales this year.

''The burden of this injunction will fall on the forestry workers who have relied, in good faith, on the federal obligation under the law to provide a source of supply for timber dependent communities,'' he said.

Questioned about the Lujan memo before the court decision in Oregon, Interior Department spokesman Jay Sullivan said Wednesday the department will continue to develop an owl recovery plan in compliance with federal laws as a special working team evaluates the other alternatives.

Any departure from existing law would require a legislative exemption from Congress and Lujan is prepared to seek that, Sullivan said.

''The secretary is providing an option - outside the very strict interpretation of the act - which will preserve the owl and also save several thousands jobs,'' he said.

A draft version of the recovery plan would cost the region an estimated 31,000 jobs, cutting back logging by about 45 percent from traditional levels, Lujan said.

In an effort to save logging jobs, Lujan suggests concentrating protection of the owl in certain parts of the Pacific Northwest while letting its threatened population fall off in other isolated parts of the region.

He also suggests it may be acceptable to merely preserve and stabilize the owl's population rather than meeting the act's more stringent standard of boosting its numbers to the point it no longer is threatened.

''This is a very significant step for the administration to make,'' Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., a backer of the timber industry, said Wednesday.

''We have broken the administration or at least the Department of Interior out of the iron bounds of the act as it exists in the present time,'' he said.

But Sen. Brock Adams, D-Wash., a defender of the Endangered Species Act, said the Bush administration again is ''choosing partisan politics over sound forest management.

''Every time the administration is confronted with the facts, it creates a new task force to re-interpret them,'' Adams said.

Also Wednesday, the chairman of a House subcommittee with oversight of endangered species asked the General Accounting Office on Wednesday to investigate charges the Bush administration already has violated the Endangered Species Act with its handling of the owl.

''The Endangered Species Act cannot work if its provisions are ignored or manipulated,'' said Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass. ''The Interior Department has spent three years avoiding its obligations under the ESA, generating a raft of lawsuits and paralyzing its timber program.''