In the days after the Trump administration proposed sweeping changes to the Endangered Species Act, forestry and environmental advocates in Oregon were struggling to determine what the proposed changes could mean.
The U.S. Department of the Interior on Thursday unveiled a series of proposed rollbacks to longstanding animal and plant protections, such as the end of automatic extensions of habitat protections for species that are considered threatened. A threatened species is a step below the “endangered” designation.
Other changes would remove language from federal laws ordering policymakers to ignore economic factors in wildlife protection decisions. Such a change would give greater weight to business and agricultural voices in environmental policy.
While the outline of the changes was announced Thursday, federal officials said the full text of the proposal wasn’t expected to be published for several days.
That left Oregon groups, from those pushing for more logging to those fighting for wilderness protections, to content themselves with news articles on the proposal while watching for the rules to be uploaded to the Federal Register.
Once published, the rules will available online for review and public comment for 60 days.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a clear sense (of the changes) until we see what’s posted in the Federal Register,” said Rocky McVeigh, executive director of the Association of O&C Counties. “We’re anxiously waiting to take a look at it.”
The Association of O&C Counties represents 18 Oregon counties, including Lane County, with more than 2 million combined acres of federally owned forests in their boundaries. The group has long advocated for increased logging on those lands, arguing that federal environmental restrictions have left forests overgrown and underlogged, shortchanging rural counties of timber revenue and jobs.
“We feel like the law needs to be revisited in several ways,” McVeigh said.
But for environmental groups, the changes could mark a major setback in efforts to save species from extinction.
Some of the industries pushing for environmental rollbacks, like oil and natural gas firms, have enjoyed record profits in recent years, said Arran Robertson, spokesman for the Portland-based nonprofit Oregon Wild.
In Oregon, cattle has become the state’s top agricultural good, even as industry officials have warned of economic harm from grazing restrictions on federal lands, he added.
“When they say, ‘These industries are struggling, we need to have all of these economic considerations,’ it isn’t an economic burden,” Robertson said. “These industries are very successful.”
He said Oregon Wild would read and weigh in on the proposed rules once they’re posted.
The rules may have less of an impact on one of the longest standing fights between Oregon business and environmental interests: the fight over the northern spotted owl.
Listed as a threatened species in 1990, logging advocates blame spotted owl habitat protections for steep declines in timber harvests that have crippled rural economies. Many environmental groups argue lower harvests are due more to overlogging and a lack of sustainable forestry practices in the decades prior.
But the new Department of the Interior rules wouldn’t affect species already listed as threatened. That could exempt the spotted owl from any changes, should the rules take effect — a decision that could draw protest from logging advocates.
“If these rule changes are not applied to past listings and critical habitat designations, they will not do much good here in Western Oregon,” Tim Freeman, a Douglas County commissioner and president of the Association of O&C Counties, said in a statement. “We intend to look carefully at that question, and if the improvements are not retroactive as they are being proposed, we will push hard in the rulemaking process to see if the agencies can be persuaded to make them retroactive.”