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Updated Aug 11, 2014 - 10:40 am

Mexican spotted owl at center of forest debate in Flagstaff

A Mexican spotted owl is shown. (Twitter photo/@RobRackliffe)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Environmentalists are concerned that thinning a forest south of south of Flagstaff would harm three breeding pairs of Mexican spotted owls that live there.

The Arizona Daily Sun reports that Mormon Mountain is being considered for restorative thinning. The options being considered include intensive logging, conducting minimal treatments that use mostly hand-thinning methods and taking no action at all.

Mormon Mountain was the mountain that officials wanted to thin when Flagstaff voters approved a $10 million project in 2012 aimed at keeping water supplies safe. The backside of the mountain feeds into Lake Mary, the city's surface water supply. It's a dense and overgrown forest.

Simulations by the U.S. Forest Service of a wildfire on Mormon Mountain show that the effects would be devastating to Lake Mary. Such a significant fire would render Flagstaff's surface water supply unusable, forcing taxpayers to cover the cost of an additional 11 water wells at a cost of $2 million each.

Environmentalists say removing large trees will remove habitat for many species, including the Mexican spotted owl and its prey.

When the owl was first listed on the Endangered Species Act some 20 years ago, ecologists worried about threats from timber harvesting. But intensive harvesting has all but vanished from the Southwest. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service now considers wildfire the owl's gravest threat.

Jay Lininger, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said it's important that the final decision avoids unnecessary harm to animals that are at risk of extinction.

Stephen Dewhurst, an associate professor in Northern Arizona University's School of Forestry, disagreed.

"The center seems to have not recognized, or accepted, the clear indications that the way to protect the owl over the long term is not merely through preventing or limiting logging wherever possible which is their old playbook but rather through the reduction of fire risk and the alteration of fire behavior across the landscape," Dewhurst said.

Dewhurst said restoring overstocked forests to a more open, natural condition is the best way to protect the forest and the owls.

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Information from: Arizona Daily Sun, http://www.azdailysun.com/

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