New Mexico sawmill struggling under revised owl ruling

January 31, 2020 GMT

MILAN, N.M. (AP) — A sawmill is struggling to keep afloat amid a monthslong court injunction that barred logging anywhere near Mexican spotted owl habitat in New Mexico’s five national forests.

Mt. Taylor Manufacturing in Milan, New Mexico, was silenced in mid-December because of the court battle, the Santa Fe New Mexican reports.

A federal judge imposed the ban on timber activities in September based on a 2013 lawsuit by the Santa Fe-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians that claimed the U.S. Forest Service failed to monitor the spotted owl adequately. The bird is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1993.

A month later, the judge allowed limited cutting, such as Christmas tree harvests, outside owl territory.

The trees outside the owls’ habitat are juniper and piñon, according to Matt Allen, owner of Mt. Taylor Manufacturing.

His operation uses ponderosa pine — the trees on which the owls nest — so the judge’s revised order doesn’t help his mill.

The mill got by for a few months on a stockpile of wood. When it ran out, Allen says, he gave the 43-man crew — almost all Navajo — odd jobs so they could support their families during the holidays and not have to deprive their children of Christmas presents. The mill is one of the few employment sources for the Navajo Nation in Cibola County.

But it meant absorbing a hefty financial loss.

“We are bleeding money,” Allen says. “Everything in this game is very expensive.”

The logs that recently came from private land are a stopgap for Allen’s mill, which needs timber from federal forests to survive, he says.

The selective logging his company does creates spaces between trees that curb the spread of wildfires in owl habitat, Allen says.

“The disappointing thing in my heart is I know what we’re doing is good for the forest,” Allen said.

A team of federal biologists mostly agrees with him.

They concluded careful tree thinning and prescribed burns might cause short-term damage to owl habitat. Still, they benefit the species overall by preventing massive wildfires and enhancing undergrowth to enable the owl’s food sources — wood rats, squirrels, and small reptiles — to thrive.

The Forest Service included the biologists’ opinions in a recent motion to allow timber harvests to resume near owl habitat in Cibola, Santa Fe, Gila, Carson, and Lincoln national forests in New Mexico and Tonto National Forest in Arizona.

The judge has yet to rule on whether the biologists’ opinions prove the Forest Service is doing enough to monitor the impacts of tree thinning on the owls.

An environmental advocate doesn’t believe the proof is there.

“While some limited, judicious thinning is probably OK … there is no empirical data that assesses the benefits and harm, that assesses the projects that Mt. Taylor Manufacturing is doing,” says John Horning, WildEarth Guardians’ executive director. “There’s a tremendous amount of complexity in the forest ecosystem, in fire ecology.”