OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Spotted owls create forest management challenge

05/13/1997

CORVALLIS - The arrival of a threatened species on its land is giving the College of Forestry at Oregon State University some new challenges - and opportunities - that may sound familiar to other forest landowners in Oregon.

A breeding pair of northern spotted owls has recently taken up residence in the McDonald-Dunn Research Forest operated by the college near Corvallis, with its nest site less than two miles from the nearest residential areas.

The owls' arrival has already forced the college to place 70 acres of land around the nesting site off-limits to pretty much everything, and prompted the creation of a "habitat conservation plan" that, when approved, will ultimately affect all 11,500 acres of this Coast Range forest.

"We're now facing the same type of requirements for endangered species protection that many other Oregon landowners have had to deal with," said David Lysne, director of the research forests. "But the good news is it's a dynamite research opportunity for our students and scientists, and it doesn't appear we'll have to make major changes in our forest management plans."

The arrival of the owls, Lysne said, might have been far more of a problem if the college did not already have very progressive, environmentally-sound land management plans in place.

While allowing for timber production, the existing plan seeks to create diverse types of forest structure, provide multiple types of habitat for many different animal and plant species, and - most importantly - give university scientists and students an unparalleled outdoor laboratory.

That's not to deny, however, that the presence of a threatened species has made life more complicated for college officials.

"Our primary mission with this land is education and research," said Ruthe Smith, a wildlife biologist with the OSU Research Forests. "But if we didn't create this habitat conservation plan, federal regulations would preclude us from doing the types of forest management activities we need."

The area near where the owls are nesting had been targeted by the university for experiment with "uneven-aged" forest management techniques - which scientists believe may provide some solutions for producing timber while providing habitat more suitable to a variety of animal species.

But many of the actions necessary to create that uneven-aged structure would be impossible without the habitat conservation plan, Smith said.

Even when the new plan is approved, she said, it may temporarily cause the area near the owls' current nest to become less suitable habitat - it's already marginal. For that reason an "incidental take permit" will be part of the new habitat conservation plan proposal. If the owls' current habitat becomes insufficient, in all likelihood they will move at least temporarily to an old growth forest on nearby Mary's Peak, university officials say.

In the long run - which university, state and federal officials all agree is by far the most important - the new management plans will make McDonald-Dunn Forest into a model for forest lands that produce timber, protect watersheds, nurture soils and fisheries, and provide the necessary habitat for virtually all native plant and animal species.

"Landowners all over Oregon are learning new ways to produce timber while better protecting animal species and using new types of ecosystem management," Lysne said. "At first much of this has been quite controversial. But the OSU College of Forestry is determined to find ways to do this successfully, and our spotted owls certainly give us a good opportunity."

Final approval of the habitat conservation plan now being developed by OSU officials is hoped for by January, 1998.

Most of McDonald and Dunn Forest is second-growth forest heavily logged in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Before that, repeated fires set by Native Americans maintained it as oak savanna, prairie grasses and open meadows.

Spotted owls have probably moved in and out of the forest for decades, Lysne said, although they were only officially identified in the 1970s.

The owls now in the forest have been tagged with radio transmitters so university biologists can study their movements and ecology. They are living quietly in a steep-sloped, Douglas-fir forest that's 120-160 years old - quite oblivious to the plans and strategy meetings swirling around them.