WASHINGTON -- After months of studying the economic cost of protecting the threatened northern spotted owl, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said yesterday that it has designated 6.88 million acres of old-growth forest in Washington, Oregon and Northern California as habitat critical to the creature's survival.
Federal officials have estimated that saving the owl could cost 33,000 jobs in the Northwest, but the timber industry maintains that the toll could reach 80,000 to 100,000.
The designation, which in effect would restrict timber-cutting on the land, is still subject to review by the Department of the Interior and is likely to face other challenges.
Although the acreage was a dramatic reduction from the 11.6 million acres the agency first proposed as protected habitat last April, the new designation immediately drew fire from logging companies, which contended that the acreage was too high, and environmentalists, who said that it was too low.
Loggers said the designation would further harm the already depressed timber industry in the Pacific Northwest.
Barry Polsky, a spokesman for the American Forest Resource Alliance, accused Fish and Wildlife officials of "low-balling" estimated job losses, and Mark Rey, the timber organization's executive director, called the action "a legal lynching of an entire region by an out-of-control federal agency."
Environmental organizations, whose 1987 lawsuit forced the government to identify the owl's critical habitat, charged that reducing the area of protection would cause the death of half the remaining birds, which numbered 2,800 in the three states in October, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service estimate.
The area outlined in documents submitted to a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle and made public yesterday will not ban logging but will sharply restrict it and will require timber sales to be approved by Fish and Wildlife officials on a case-by-case basis.
After an outcry from timber and business interests last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service in August dropped 3 million acres of private lands from the 11.6 million acres it first proposed to designate as critical habitat.
From the remaining 8.6 million, the new action excluded 1.7 million acres belonging to the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management.
Finally designated as critical to the owl's survival were 2.2 million acres of federal land in Washington, 3.3 million acres in Oregon and 1.4 million acres in Northern California.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman David Klinger said officials spent four months identifying areas to be eliminated because the economic impact of protection outweighed the bird's survival.
Critics reacted scornfully to the service's claim that it had saved jobs.
"The agency," said Mr. Polsky, "is pulling out all of the stops to low-ball the numbers to protect the Endangered Species Act."