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Nonprofit Asks 9th Circuit|to Halt Logging Project

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The logging project in Arizona's Kaibab National Forest will destroy the foraging habitat of the Mexican Spotted Owl, the Center for Biological Diversity argued before the 9th Circuit on Tuesday.

The nonprofit is one of several groups trying to stop the Warm Fire Recovery Project, which aims to remove trees killed by the 2006 Warm Fire, which got its name from the nearby Warm Springs Canyon. The fire occurred on the Kaibab Plateau, north of Grand Canyon National Park.

Charles Scott, attorney for the federal agencies involved in the case, said the project is "not just about logging" but about regenerating thousands of acres of forest burned by the 2006 wildfire and improving the habitat over the long term.

Excess vegetation must be removed from the area "to reduce the amount of fuels that could cause future catastrophic wild fires such as this one," Scott said.

He added that regeneration through removing surplus growth "will be achieved faster through this project than through natural recovery processes."

The Center for Biological Diversity, along with the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians, filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service in 2009.

At issue in the case is a letter of concurrence from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granting approval of the recovery project in 2008 and allowing the Forest Service to log over 3,000 acres of spotted owl habitat.

The letter said the project might affect the spotted owl's habitat, but not adversely. But the nonprofits argue that the letter contradicts the agency's earlier biological opinion that removing hazard trees in the area would harm 864 acres of spotted owl territory.

"The Forest Service says this and says this, and all of a sudden you get to the end of the process, and there's just a one-page letter of concurrence that says, 'Ah, it's okay, you can go ahead,' without ever explaining all those past determinations and findings," said Mark Finks, who represents the Center for Biological Diversity.

Finks said that by approving the project, the Fish and Wildlife Service "jumped ship" and "failed to address prior determinations that the area is occupied and is an important area for owls to disperse and forage."

Though the circuit judges did not ask many questions of the attorneys, who each delivered 30-minute remarks, Judge David Thompson pointed out that the agencies ultimately intended to improve the forest and the habitat.

Thompson, who was appointed by Reagan in 1985, questioned whether the spotted owl's habitat would even be harmed.

"Isn't it the case that the spotted owl hadn't been seen in this area for nine years?" he asked.

Finks acknowledged: "My understanding from the record is it's most likely there's not nesting owls in this area." The attorney added, however, "this area could play an important role for dispersing owls and foraging owls."

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