A proposal by the state Department of Natural Resources could “lay off” thousands of acres of working forests in western Washington as part of a habitat conservation plan (HCP) for the marbled murrelet, a bird listed as endangered by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). However, the plan is drawing criticism from both state lawmakers and forestry groups who say the move will harm struggling rural economies that rely on logging and undermine DNR’s legal mandate to generate revenue from those public trust lands.
They’re also calling into question the rational for placing these forestlands on “deferred management.” According to DNR’s own documents, the proposed amendment to its 1997 State Trust Lands Habitat Conservation Plan would include forestland with no current murrelet habitat, and if implemented would have minimal effect on the bird’s long-term survival.
Rep. Jim Walsh (R-19), who represents southwest Washington counties such as Pacific and Wahkiakum, told Lens that the proposal is “the Spotted Owl 2.0,” in reference to a decision in the 1990s to significantly reduce timber harvesting in Washington state to protect the owl after it was placed on the endangered species list.
“The actions of the department (DNR) seem to put conservation ahead of its trust duties,” he said. “That’s a failure of DNR’s trustee and fiduciary duty. It’s bad stuff. It will hurt Pacific and devastate Wahkiakum.”
Roughly 1.4 million acres of DNR-managed land located within 55 miles of marine waters in western Washington is subject to the HCP and contain 592 murrelet sites. Since 1997, the state agency has operated under an interim conservation strategy that it aims to replace with one of eight possible alternatives. Its current preferred option (Alternative H) would affect a total of 610,000 acres, adding 43,000 acres in addition to the 567,000 acres where timber harvesting is already discontinued. One of the objectives under that strategy is to maintain or create long-term forest cover for the bird. Alternative F would affect the most amount of new acreage (176,000), but was rejected by DNR because it would over-mitigate.
If implemented, the new strategy would remain in place until 2067.
However, the proposed amendment acknowledges that DNR manages only nine percent of total land for murrelets in Washington. Because of that the agency has “limited potential to influence the trajectory of the Washington murrelet population and certainly cannot control it” (page 11). It also states that the new strategy adds new land with no bird habitat, “with the expectation that these areas will be occupied at some future time by murrelets” (page 10).
Matt Comisky is the Washington state manager for the American Forest Resource Council. He told Lens that “we’re struggling with this as an industry, because what we’re seeing is thousands of acres of nonhabitat land being deferred from any sort of active management going forward, that will likely not benefit the marbled murrelet throughout the life of the plan (that) ends in 2067.”
In its public comment submission, AFRC argued that the land already set aside could provide sufficient habitat for the murrelet, something the proposal “does not adequately recognize.” The organization also expressed skepticism that any meaningful habitat could be prepared on the 43,000 new acres within the given timeframe. “No one can ‘create’ marbled murrelet habitat; it takes generations.”
AFRC favors Alternative B, which would affect the least amount of forestland (9,000), but was rejected by DNR for under-mitigating and failing to provide sufficient habitat development.
However, Comisky said “DNR’s obligation is to comply with the Endangered Species Act, but not one acre more.”
Aside from the science, both Comisky and Walsh say the economic impacts haven’t been adequately addressed. In addition to two public meetings in October, DNR also extended public comment on the proposed amendment by a month from Nov. 6 to Dec. 6.
Growing concern prompted the state agency to release a financial analysis and a losses and gains analysis as a result of HB 2285 approved this year by the legislature directing DNR to submit an annual report to the state that must include, among other things, “an economic analysis of potential losses or gains from any proposed marbled murrelet long-term conservation strategy.”
However, Walsh said the reports are “all BS. It’s all window dressing.”
ARFC voiced similar criticism in its November newsletter, noting “the lack of information provided about local impacts to jobs and revenues.”
DNR also released a sustainable harvest financial analysis, though Comisky said it’s “more of a business performance metric, not really an economic impact assessment. The impacts to jobs and to the revenue that goes to public services like fire (and) libraries, are happening at a very finite community level, and that analysis hasn’t really been done.”
As example of that, Walsh points to the Timberland Regional Library System, which covers five counties and receives timber harvest revenue from the State Forest Land trust. Due to a $700,000 deficit in its budget, the library board recently proposed closing several library branches, a plan they later rejected after backlash from patrons.
“It met with great outrage by the people in this part of the state, and rightly so,” Walsh said. “It was good to see people fired up about this.”
However, he noted that the budget deficit is in part due to decreased trust revenue that also affects timber harvest tax and timber sales revenue the library receives. According to the library system’s preliminary 2019 budget, estimated revenue is expected to be below $1 million. As recently as 2015, the revenue from those three sources was almost $2 million.
Walsh said that at this point the most effective thing to do is legislation that can mitigate any economic harm by providing funds to the affected communities. However, he added “the best public policy would be to prevent this stuff from happening. We can put on all these band-aids after the damage is done, but the really good policy is to prevent DNR from promulgating absurd public policy.”