The last building block of the Obama administration's strategy unveiled Wednesday to keep the northern spotted owl from extinction nearly doubles the amount of Northwest national forest land dedicated to protecting the bird by the Bush administration four years ago.
Still, conservation groups that went to court to force the overhaul said key gaps remain, such as an exemption for private forest lands and most state forests.
The full critical habitat plan will not be published until next week, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that 9.6 million acres of Oregon, Washington and Northern California will come under its provisions, almost all of it federal lands.
The amount is down from nearly 14 million acres proposed last February but still exceeds the 5.3 million acres proposed in 2008. The biggest cut came in private timberlands — 1.3 million acres. State forests covering 271,000 acres remain.
Following a directive last February from the White House, officials revised the latest plan to make room for thinning and logging inside critical habitat to reduce the danger of wildfire and improve the health of forests.
Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said it appeared the critical habitat plan and the previously adopted owl recovery strategy were back in line with the Northwest Forest Plan adopted in 1994 to protect owls and salmon.
"In restoring extensive protections on federal lands, today's decision ... marks the end of a dark chapter in the Endangered Species Act's implementation when politics were allowed to blot out science," he said. "The owl has continued to decline since its protection under the Endangered Species Act. Part of the reason for that is the loss of habitat on private and state lands."
Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist for the GEOS Institute and a former member of the spotted owl recovery team, objected to plans to log and thin forests inside the critical habitat area, saying no studies have been done on how that may harm owls, which favor old growth. He added that one study shows it reduces the amount of prey available.
The federal government has been trying to balance logging and fish and wildlife habitat since the late 1980s.
The designation of the spotted owl as a threatened species in 1990 triggered a 90 percent cutback in logging on national forests in the northwest, and similar reductions spread around the nation.
Even so, the spotted owl has seen a 40 percent decline during the past 25 years, Fish and Wildlife officials said
The Bush administration tried to undue protections for the owls and other species to allow more logging, but the effort was turned back in court.
The timber industry reserved detailed comment on the latest proposal until it can look at the full plan.
American Forest Resource Council President Tom Partin said he wanted to see how much of the owl habitat remained from the draft last February. He urged Fish and Wildlife to get moving on efforts to control the invasion of the barred owl, an East Coast cousin that has been pushing the meeker spotted owl out of its territories.
The latest spotted owl recovery plan calls for killing some barred owls, but Fish and Wildlife has not come out with specifics.