Stakeholders: Put the brakes on conservation plan

Stakeholders: Put the brakes on conservation plan
Stakeholders are urging the State Board of Natural Resources not to rush a decision regarding a habitat conservation plan (HCP) for the marbled murrelet that could “lay off” thousands of acres of working forestland. Photo: freepik.com

As the state Board of Natural Resources (BNR) prepares to vote next month on a habitat conservation plan (HCP) for the endangered marbled murrelet, stakeholders are urging the board not to rush any decision that could affect thousands of acres of working forestland. However, forestry groups and environmental advocates testifying at a Nov. 5 board meeting remain divided over which of the alternative strategies the board should adopt.

American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) Washington State Manager Matt Comisky told Lens that “the bigger challenge lies in the amount of nonhabitat (working forestland) that we see DNR planning to defer as part of the conservation strategy.”

The new strategy is meant to update the 1997 State Trust Lands Habitat Conservation Plan that currently affects 1.4 million acres of western Washington land managed by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) located within 55 miles of marine waters. Right now, roughly 42 percent of DNR’s working forestland in western Washington is set aside for conservation efforts. The state agency manages nine percent of the total land for murrelets in Washington.

Depending on the strategy BNR approves, more working forestland could be taken offline and affect trust land beneficiaries who receive revenue generated by timber sales. The board’s preferred plan would add roughly 37,000 acres. While it is a slight reduction from a version released last year affecting 42,000 acres, the plan still conserves forestland not used as habitat by the marbled murrelet.

“I’d say (it’s been) very tiny baby steps in a positive direction for beneficiaries…but not anything big,” Comisky said. “We’ve been nibbling around the edges, but for the final product I’d say we still have concerns.”

AFRC prefers Alternative B, which would only affect 9,000 acres. AFRC General Counsel Lawson Fite told the board at its Nov. 5 meeting that this strategy meets requirements under the federal Endangered Species Act, but doesn’t go beyond it. “Going beyond that and adding other additional set asides will violate your fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries. It’s a gratuitous act, rather than a required act.”

He added that taking working forestland offline “has real costs to the beneficiaries, they have real costs to our industry, they have real costs to rural communities. Blue collar, middle class jobs translate into the lifeblood of rural Washington.”

In agreement with AFRC in part is Washington Forest Law Center Managing Attorney Peter Goldman, who told the board “we need to slow down the approval process of the long-term conservation strategy.” However, Goldman favors Alternative G, which would conserve 76,000 acres – twice that of BNR’s preferred plan.

“If the board rushes through this in December, there are going to be numerous adverse consequences,” Goldman said. “You’re talking about adopting something…that’s going to apply to our lands for 50 years in the next couple of weeks. There is a prevailing view that now is the time because everybody’s angry at each other, so we must be doing something right here. I urge you not to take that view.”

The board is planning to approve a plan on Dec. 3.

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