PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - A logging project in Shasta-Trinity National Forest could harm the habitat of the northern spotted owl, environmentalists told the 9th Circuit.
Conservation Congress says U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton erred in finding last year that the timber sale, known as the mudflow project, would not damage habitat set aside for the owl.
The Forest Service, meanwhile, claims that the logging project will enhance the habitat by reducing forest disease and wildfires.
Conservation Congress sued the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 over the logging project approved for roughly 3,000 acres of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California.
The northern spotted owl, distinguished by dark eyes and whitish spots on its head and neck, was listed as an endangered species in 1990 after its population declined dramatically through logging activities in old-growth forests.
Activists say land for the timber sale had been designated as a critical habitat for the owl in 1992, and that the agencies violated the Endangered Species Act as well as the National Environmental Policy Act by approving the project.
Judge Karlton refused to enter a preliminary injunction, however, after finding that the Endangered Species Act claims would likely fail.
On Tuesday afternoon, Conservation Congress told the 9th Circuit that the Forest Service should have looked more closely at the cumulative impacts of the timber sale.
With 124 acres already been logged, the groups need a "tailored and limited" injunction to prevent further losses, WildEarth Guardians general counsel Jay Tutchton said.
The Forest Service had approved logging "a little bit" at a time to make the impact on the forest appear negligible, Tutchton said.
Over time, however, the cumulative impacts of the logging will allegedly reach a tipping point.
"At some point you'd the hit the straw that breaks the camel's back," Tutchton said.
The Forest Service urged the three-judge appellate panel to affirm denial of the preliminary injunction.
Justice Department attorney Vivian Wang said the project would eventually improve conditions for the owl.
Sierra Pacific Industries, a purchaser in the timber sale that intervened as a defendant in the case, echoed this statement.
Julie Weis, of Haglund, Kelley, Jones & Wilde, represents the company.
Calling that area of the forest "marginal spotted owl habitat at best," Weis said that species had not nested in the area for over 20 years.
The acres in the timber sale had not yet been logged but had only been "treated" or thinned in preparation for logging, she said.
Weis also argued that wildfires threaten people who live in urban areas around the mudflow project. This group has been forgotten in the clamor to protect the owl, she said.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski interrupted: "The human species is not in danger, last I looked. It was still growing,."
Judge Margaret McKeown and Judge Milan Smith joined Kozinski on the panel.
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