Small and shy, marbled murrelets nonetheless are at the center of a big battle that could determine the fate of state-managed timberlands across large swaths of rural Western Washington.
Marbled murrelets were listed as a threatened species in 1992 — yet the birds have declined ever since. And even though logging poses the greatest threat to their survival, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has yet to create a long-term conservation strategy for murrelets on state timberlands.
At issue is how to balance the need to save a struggling species with the state’s mandate to generate logging revenue from state timberlands. Public hearings get under way this week that are intended to help set the direction for management alternatives to be considered in another process beginning later this year.
Logging has been severely curtailed on federal lands since adoption of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994. That has pushed most of the controversy onto state timberlands, managed by DNR under an interim strategy since 1997.
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Murrelets have long been one of the region’s most enigmatic animals. A science report completed for DNR in 2008 said the extremely secretive birds nest in old-growth conifer forests along the Pacific Coast of North America, spending most of their lives in small groups or pairs, on protected coastal waters just beyond the breakers.
To feed, murrelets “fly” underwater, chasing down their prey at depths of as much as 164 feet.
It wasn’t until 1974 that scientists even knew much about their nesting habits. Murrelets nest as far as 50 miles inland, snugged in subtle depressions in moss and lichen on the branches of old-growth trees.
Historically, marbled murrelets inhabited all of the Washington coast and the Puget Sound region. The science report in 2008 noted fewer than 9,800 birds in at-sea surveys, with the population declining by as much as 8 percent per year, depending on location.
The science report, developed to support a long-term conservation strategy, recommends curtailing logging within so-called marbled murrelet management areas.
In Southwest Washington in particular, the biggest areas left to protect are state trust lands, because the majority of timber holdings in the region are privately held and already cut for industrial production, said Shawn Cantrell, executive director of Seattle Audubon.
“If you are going to have any credible opportunity to slow and reverse the decline of murrelets, Southwest Washington is the key bridge between other populations,” Cantrell said.
Ultimately, conservation groups including Seattle Audubon and the Olympic Forest Coalition would like to see the approach set forth in the science report implemented not only in Southwest Washington, but all over Western Washington where there is marbled-murrelet habitat, said Wyatt Golding, an attorney with the Washington Forest Law Center in Seattle. The firm is suing the DNR on behalf of Seattle Audubon and the coalition, over proposed logging within Southwest Washington that conservationists argue will destroy marbled-murrelet habitat.
Hopes for the preservation of the marbled murrelet are, at the moment, at odds with the state’s mandate to produce logging revenue from state trust lands for school construction and other public needs. “We are talking about a big collision,” said Marcy Golde, of Seattle, a member of the board of directors of the Olympic Forest Coalition.
Lenny Young, supervisor of the DNR, said the agency values the science report but that it’s just one aspect of the agency’s mandate. In addition to conservation, it is obligated to generate revenue from state trust lands.
“The science report does not take into account DNR’s fiduciary responsibilities,” Young said. “I think of the science report as a high-quality report with good recommendations but it is not the only thing that will shape the ultimate course the state will take.”
The agency also will consider new science produced since the 2008 report was completed, Young said.
Conservationists have pushed in this year’s legislative session for creation of a fund to buy out environmentally sensitive state forestlands to protect murrelets and other species while providing money for the school trust. But so far the $10 million sought has dwindled to $1.5 million under consideration in the state capital budget.
Conservationists will propose expanded protection for murrelets at public hearings convened by DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service beginning this week in Olympia, and running through June 19. So far, even the venues for the hearings are contested.
None of the hearings is scheduled for a major population center, noted Graham Taylor, conservation organizer with the Sierra Club. The first is in Olympia, and the other three are in rural timber towns.
“That makes sense if you are a marbled murrelet and you want to comment,” Taylor said. “But not if you are a person.”
Young said the department would stick with its hearing roster. “These are the communities closest to the areas to where DNR is managing the land for murrelets,” Young said. “There is a hearing in Olympia, which is a relatively easy drive for people who want to come from Seattle or Tacoma.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org