A tree-cutting ban in Southwest forests designed to protect a threatened spotted owl was narrowed Tuesday to exclude personal firewood cutting permits that residents in rural areas rely on to heat their homes and cook food.
The timber management ban covers 18,750 square miles in all five national forests in New Mexico and the Tonto National Forest.
A U.S. judge amended the ban to allow personal firewood cutting after an environmental group declared these permits would not bring harm upon the rare owl species.
The U.S. Forest Service said permit sales resumed immediately.
“A lot of people would have had a terrible winter without the firewood permits,” said Roy Adair, a retired auto mechanic in Roswell, New Mexico, who needs 10 cords of wood for his family.
Still banned are forest thinning projects, prescribed burns and commercial wood cutting.
Wood is used as the primary heat source for residents who are not able to afford propane or do not have access to natural gas. Winter is only a couple months away, which began to cause panic and anxiety among residents and their neighbors. Having to endure the winter months without wood could have created many hazards.
Adair planned on looking through scrap wood piles at the landfill or chopping up tree stumps around his yard to throw in the stove if he couldn’t gather firewood in the national forest.
“We want to be completely self-sustainable but every time we get where we need to be, something like this happens,” he said. “I don’t have $500 to $600 to go out and (buy) firewood.”
New Mexico’s congressional delegation wrote to federal officials citing the dangers of the ban. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she’s grateful for the court’s quick action to avoid “what would have been a devastating situation.”
The Forest Service had over 8,200 permits for personal firewood cutting active and on file when the ban went into effect.
The court order stems from a 2013 lawsuit. In that lawsuit, environmental group, ‘WildEarth Guardians’ accused the federal government of failing to consider the impact of logging on the owls and their habitat.
WildEarth argued that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service have failed to track the bird’s numbers.
U.S. District Judge Raner Collins in Arizona agreed. He ceased timber management until agencies discover a way to count the owls as part of a recovery plan.
The group also asked Collins to order the parties into mediation to further define the ban. The judge gave the federal agencies a week to respond.
John Horning of WildEarth Guardians said the group aims to receive a full breakdown explanation on trail maintenance, medicinal plant gathering, tribal ceremonial activities and prescribed burns.
Forest Service spokesman, Shayne Martin said the agency also wants to review prescribed burns meant to reduce the risk of wildfires and safety issues like removing trees from power lines.
Around two dozen projects including prescribed burns, thinning and other forest restoration work are on hold currently.
Declared as ‘threatened’ in the U.S. in 1993, the Mexican spotted owl is found in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, parts of west Texas and Mexico. The tree-cutting ban does not extend beyond the borders of New Mexico and Arizona.