Northwest News

Endangered bird, loggers both get something from new plan for state lands

The state Department of Natural Resources said Friday it has a final plan to provide habitat for a federally-threatened seabird in western Washington while guaranteeing revenue from state trust lands for public school construction and rural counties.

“We have both an ethical and legal obligation to protect the marbled murrelet and support our rural economies,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, the first-term Democrat who oversees DNR. “For more than 20 years, we have been stuck in gridlock. This inaction has created anxiety and fear for both rural communities and environmentalists. Inaction is not working for the marbled murrelet, it’s not working for public services that depend on public forestland, and it’s not working for rural communities.”

DNR on Friday released the 1,590-page final environmental impact statement for conservation of the marbled murrelet on state land.

The small seabird feeds in the Pacific Ocean and nests in old-growth forests, “laying one egg per year and only setting them atop large moss-covered branches high in the forest canopy within 55 miles of saltwater,” according to DNR. Under state law, it is an endangered species. The federal government classifies it as a threatened species.

From 2001 to 2016, the murrelet population declined at an average annual rate of 4 percent in Washington due to the loss of inland nesting habitat, decreased availability of prey and increased densities of predators. DNR estimates there are about 6,000 murrelets remaining in Washington. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers DNR-managed land in Clallam, Pacific and Wahkiakum counties to be important habitat to conserve the bird.

Under DNR’s plan, 168,000 acres of murrelet habitat will be protected on state land. That consists of 78,000 acres of forestland that is current murrelet habitat and 90,000 acres of state forestland that is suitable murrelet habitat and is unsuitable for logging or other ways for the state to generate revenue.

Also, the plan will free up to logging more than 100,000 acres of forestland for the first time in 20 years, allowing timber harvests that would generate revenue for rural communities and create good-paying jobs, acccording to DNR’s press release. Because the state has operated since 1997 under an “interim strategy” for conservation of the murrelet, timber harvests have not been allowed in those areas as DNR worked on a final plan.

“We didn’t have enough information on the science of what their habitat needs are,” said Franz, first elected in 2016 and the fourth state Commissioner of Public Lands to oversee the search for a strategy to protect the threatened species while providing revenue from timber harvests for counties and school construction. “It’s 22 years of a very complicated scientific review and analysis.”

Matt Comisky, Washington state manager for the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, challenged DNR’s statement, saying over 100,000 acres have been off-limits to logging since 2017 and about 33,000 acres for 22 years.

DNR manages 3 million acres of trust land to provide revenue for schools, hospitals, libraries and other public services.

The largest of the federally granted trusts that DNR oversees is the Common School Trust, with about 1.8 million acres of forest land, agricultural land and other properties that help fund K-12 school construction projects across the state. DNR also oversees State Forest Land Trusts, which are managed for the benefit of counties where that timber is located and provides revenue for roads, libraries, fire districts, ports, hospitals and emergency management.

Chris Reykdal, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, praised the state’s final plan.

“This conservation strategy balances the needs of our schools, rural communities, species preservation, and the sustainability of a vital economic industry in our state,” he said in a written statement.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether to approve a permit covering DNR’s murrelet plan. Once that happens, the state Board of Natural Resources, which Franz chairs, is expected later this year to vote on the plan and accept the federal permit.

Paula Swedeen, policy director of Seattle-based Conservation Northwest, said the nonprofit group favored setting aside more state land for murrelet habitat. But she said DNR officials did “as good a job as they can walking the line between compliance with the Endangered Species Act and their interpretation of their fiduciary responsibilities under their trust mandate.

“There are elements of their strategy that are really sensible, and they used good conservation biology principles. It’s just more in the right locations is better for this bird because of the decline (in population),” she said.

State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, applauded Franz for trying to resolve the murrelet debate but expressed frustration about the federal government’s regulatory process. He said he expects DNR’s plan will stabilize the number of murrelets in Washington but said it was chosen with the hope that conservation groups won’t file lawsuits.

“The way the (Endangered Species Act) has evolved, in my opinion, it’s become somewhat weaponized and less about conservation of species than as a tool for locking up land,” said Blake, a former contract forester for Weyerhaeuser Co. who has been a House member for nearly 17 years.

Blake said he has not received details from DNR yet on how the plan will affect the budgets of Pacific and Wahkiakum counties, which are both in his district.

“They’re going to bear the brunt of this, especially Wahkiakum County where a large portion of the county general fund budget comes from timber management of trust lands. What I don’t know is whether there’s an expectation that the rest of the state is going to make up this loss of revenue through the state general budget so we can keep law enforcement in Wahkiakum County,” he said.

Pacific County covers 1,223 square miles with a population of 22,036 people and is a “timber county,” said Frank Wolfe, chairman of the Board of Commissioners.

“If you take away our timber, we die,” said Wolfe. “We have a mill over here in Raymond that employs 250 people. Two-hundred and fifty people out of (22,036) people is a big employer. If we stop cutting trees, where are those jobs going? They’re not going to be in Raymond anymore,” he said.

State Sen. Dean Takko, a Longview Democrat who also represents Pacific and Wahkiakum counties, said he shares the concerns about the potential economic and fiscal impacts of DNR’s plan, but he said it’s good that the dispute over the murrelet is approaching an end.

“Whatever it takes, we’ve got to get this whole thing wrapped up and get it behind us. What we can log, we can log and what we’ll preserve, we’ll preserve. Let’s move on,” he said.

James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.