Audubon Wins a Round on Spotted Owl

     PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - The federal government withheld from the Audubon Society documents about government efforts to conserve the northern spotted owl, a federal judge found.
     The Audubon Society sued the National Resource Conservation Service in September 2010, for its failure to produce documents in a safe-harbor agreement between the agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Oregon Department of Forestry.
     The National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) was formerly known as the U.S. Soil Conservation Service.
     The safe-harbor agreement "relates to conservation of the northern spotted owl on private lands and is part of the NRCS's Healthy Forests Restoration Program," according to U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez's summary.
     The program has the purpose of "restoring and enhancing forest ecosystems to promote the recovery of threatened and endangered species, improve biodiversity, and enhance carbon sequestration," Hernandez wrote.
     The NRCS released 17 documents to Audubon, but withheld 28, claiming they were exempted by the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (FCEA).
     Audubon appealed, then sued in Federal Court.
     The agency claimed the documents were exempt from disclosure because they deal with "agricultural producers" on private forest lands at issue, and the timber produced on those lands are "agricultural commodities."
     Hernandez disagreed, and denied the NRCS motion for partial summary judgment.
     "Because Congress has failed to expressly define 'agricultural' or 'agricultural commodities' as used in § 8791 of the FCEA, I find that plaintiff's argument is more persuasive," Hernandez wrote. "Because the FCEA makes a distinction between 'agriculture' and terms related to forests, I find that wood, timber, and forest products are not agricultural commodities under the FCEA."
     For the same reason, Hernandez found that the NRCS improperly withheld documents on geospatial information of the forest lands.