The plan is the latest federal attempt to protect the northern spotted owl, the passive one-pound bird that sparked an epic battle over logging in the Pacific Northwest two decades ago.
The government set aside millions of acres of forest to protect the owl, but the bird's population continues to decline — a 40 percent slide in 25 years.
A plan announced Tuesday would designate habitat considered critical for the bird's survival, while allowing logging to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and to create jobs. Habitat loss and competition from barred owls are the biggest threats to the spotted owl.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called the draft plan "a science-based approach to forestry that restores the health of our lands and wildlife and supports jobs and revenue for local communities."
The plan affects more than 24 million acres of forest land in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. The Interior Department will accept public comments for 90 days on both the areas proposed as critical habitat and the plan to remove barred owls.
By removing selected barred owls and better managing forests, Salazar said, officials can give communities, foresters, and land managers important tools to promote healthier and more productive forests.
Officials acknowledge that the plan to kill barred owls creates an ethical dilemma, but say an experiment on private land in northern California has shown promising results. Spotted owls have returned to historic territories after barred owls were removed.
Salazar and other officials stressed the new plan's job-creation component, noting that for the first time logging would be allowed in areas designated as critical habitat for the owl. Previous plans had barred logging in areas designated as critical habitat.
"Appropriate timber harvests consistent with ecological forestry principles (should) be encouraged," the Interior Department said in a statement.
The federal government has been trying to find a balance between logging and fish and wildlife habitat since at least the late 1980s. The spotted owl was designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 — an action that led to massive logging cutbacks on national forests and other federal lands in western Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
The bird was blamed for the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and landed on the cover of Time magazine.
Despite federal efforts to protect it, the spotted owl continues to decline. A key reason is the barred owl, a larger, more aggressive East Coast cousin that has displaced spotted owls through much of their historic range.
In addition to shooting hundreds of barred owls, the new plan calls for non-lethal removal of the barred owls, by capturing them and relocating them or placing in them in permanent captivity.
"We can't ignore the mounting evidence that competition from barred owls is a major factor in the spotted owl's decline, and we have a clear obligation to do all we can to prevent the spotted owl's extinction and help it rebound," said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
The new plan replaces a 2008 Bush administration plan that was tossed out in federal court.
The latest plan includes a presidential memorandum that directs Interior to take a number of steps before the plan is finalized, including providing clear direction for how logging can be conducted within areas designated as critical habitat and conducting an economic analysis at the same time critical habitat areas are proposed.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press