Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Feb. 18, 2020

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What is the future of Washington’s forests? Endangered marbled murrelet seabird caught in fight

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SEATTLE — Nobody’s happy about the latest plans for Washington’s forest lands.

Not the environmentalists.

“Uncourageous,” said Peter Goldman, an attorney with the Washington Forest Law Center.

Not the timber industrialists, who predict lost jobs.

Not the local officials, whose economies and budgets rely on timber revenue.

“Double whammy,” said Rod Fleck, Forks’ city attorney.

Caught in the hubbub is the marbled murrelet, a zippy, robin-sized bird that spends time in coastal waters and nests in Washington forests.

No matter what officials choose for the forest, the seabirds are likely slated for at least a decade of decline, according to population models in the final plan for their conservation. Ocean conditions, prey availability, human activity and habitat loss are among factors scientists believe are playing a role.

The marbled murrelet needs thick tree branches in mature forest to raise its young.

Decades of logging and development on federal, state and private lands have left the bird with scattered patches of prime Washington forest suitable for nesting. Scientists say they need more.

But their habitat is also prime for logging. And in many rural communities, revenues from timber sales help sustain local institutions, like fire districts, putting the marbled murrelet at the center of a decades-long standoff over where and how much logging takes place in state-managed forests.

Upon statehood in 1889, the federal government gave Washington more than 3 million acres to financially support some public institutions, like schools and universities.

The Department of Natural Resources manages remaining trust land. Proceeds of timber sales to logging companies still provide some K-12 and university funding today.

DNR also manages trust land that counties received in Depression-era tax foreclosures. Counties and smaller taxing agencies like local school, fire or library districts receive timber revenue from these lands.

In parts of rural Washington, timber sales help keep the lights on at these institutions. DNR itself balances its budget with timber revenues.

Critics like Goldman argue funding core government functions with timber is a “19th-century mentality.”

But the agency believes, after court decisions and legal advice from the Attorney General’s Office, that it is legally required to maximize revenue.

DNR also must follow state and federal laws, like the Endangered Species Act, which lists the marbled murrelet as threatened.

These competing interests leave the agency balancing timber interests and environmental concerns.

In December, four of six Natural Resources Board members approved a conservation strategy for marbled murrelets and lowered the sustainable timber harvest level on state lands for the next 10 years.

The decision gave clarity for the bird’s recovery, after 22 years under an interim plan.

The plan puts an additional 37,000 acres of DNR land in conservation status for the murrelet.

The agency’s plan relies on young trees in newly protected areas to grow into habitat for the bird. As they grow, DNR will gradually release some areas of mature trees — current murrelet habitat — to be logged.

Areas where murrelets live now would have buffers to safeguard habitat. Rock blasting, new construction and road building would not be allowed near murrelet habitat, with some exceptions.

The plan also designates 20 special habitat areas, which would allow the agency to concentrate “conservation into blocks of habitat” from what is now a “scattering,” said Andrew Hayes, DNR’s forest resources division manager.

Hayes said the marbled murrelet will have 272,000 acres of suitable habitat in 50 years, some 65,000 acres more than today. (Goldman contends the acreage boost is essentially a wash because the plan’s habitat quality varies over time.) The plan also frees more than 150,000 acres for logging, Hayes said.

A representative of Gov. Jay Inslee voted against the plan, saying the governor felt it was not protective enough in the face of climate change.

Clallam County Commissioner Bill Peach opposed it also, warning the decision to lower harvest targets could stress timber communities and DNR’s budget.

Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said the approval paved the way for “more significant challenges in front of us,” including adaptation to climate change as Washington’s population grows and natural resources yield less.

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From nearly every angle, the plan faces criticism.

“It divides the baby right down the middle,” Goldman said, representing several environmental groups. “They feel they made a legally and politically safe position.”

Goldman is disappointed that DNR will open 38,000 acres of current marbled murrelet habitat to logging, believes the agency sought only minimum protection under the ESA and lacked the “vision” to ask for more.

“This is for a species declining at 4% a year and has all kinds of threats to forests and oceans, including climate change,” Goldman said.

Paula Swedeen, of Conservation Northwest, pointed out that DNR’s modeling projects murrelet populations will decline for several decades under the plan and in 50 years have a population lower than it is today.

Meanwhile, the timber industry promises job losses.

The board set a sustainable harvest figure that averages 465 million board feet each year, 85 million less than the previous decade’s mark, a volume DNR did not ultimately supply. Hayes said sustainable harvest levels are expected to drop over the next five decades.

“You just can’t pull that much volume out of the marketplace without having some kind of economic impacts,” said Matt Comisky, Washington state manager for the American Forest Resource Council.

For timber communities, state harvest reductions cut several ways.

Long term, Clallam County Comissioner Randy Johnson said he expects an economic hit as loggers, truck haulers and millers expect less timber coming off state managed lands.

The reductions look particularly stark in the county’s timber-dependent west side. About one-third of Forks’ economy is tied to natural resources, said Fleck, the city attorney and planner for the town, which has a 26% poverty rate, according to U.S. census estimates.

Each million board feet harvested is directly tied to about eight jobs, according to DNR analysis.

“It’s going to be hundreds of jobs in places like Concrete, Forks, Cathlamet,” Fleck said.

Fleck fears that complexities in DNR’s plan, like specialty habitat areas and phasing habitat in and out over time, could cause disproportionate short-term effects in certain local taxing districts where mature forest is kept off limits to logging.

“It’s a whammy to revenue for essential government functions: Schools, hospitals, ports, libraries, ambulances,” Fleck said.

Frustration was not unexpected, Franz said. There are lousier fates.

“The worst thing that could happen is us ending up in court,” Franz said. “Our job was to comply with the Endangered Species Act, but not go so far that we violate our fiduciary responsibility” to counties and schools. (The matter might end up in court regardless. Skagit County’s commissioners have approved a resolution authorizing the county prosecutor to bring legal action against DNR over its sustainable harvest calculation.)

None of the options DNR considered would halt the marbled murrelets’ near-term decline, Franz noted. Western Washington’s forest, on the whole, is not old enough. The trees simply need time to grow for the birds to recover, she said.

In Franz’s eyes, conservation of the marbled murrelet represents a small portion of the bigger issue: The falling sustainable timber harvest and what that means for rural communities. She convened a “solutions table” to soften impacts and consider new economic opportunities on rural lands.

When the board approved the murrelet plan, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal called for a transformation of how forests and timber funds are used as the climate changes.

“This is not the future of school construction. It just isn’t. This money would be better used to protect species, to protect habitat and to take care of the industries and impacted counties,” he said. “The state of Washington needs something else.”

As rural communities look toward declining harvest, Fleck fears rural transformation won’t come soon enough.

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