Washingtonians have traditionally counted on millions of acres of non-federal forestlands in our state for jobs and products, as well as...

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Washingtonians have traditionally counted on millions of acres of non-federal forestlands in our state for jobs and products, as well as sources of clean water, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. Protection of these public resources benefits us today and ensures that future generations can also enjoy them.

On Feb. 9, we took a landmark step in that direction — Gov. Christine Gregoire and I submitted the Forest Practices Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to the federal government. With its approval, this statewide HCP will protect more than 60,000 miles of streams running through 9.1 million acres of forestland, leading the nation with the highest level of protection for forests, streams and salmon. It would place all forestland in Washington under some kind of federally approved conservation plan, representing the greatest leap forward in forest protection since passage of the Forest Practices Act in 1974.

Our application asks the federal government to bless Washington state’s rigorous forest-practices system. Approval of Washington’s Forest Practices HCP will assure those federal authorities that landowners practicing forestry in Washington state meet federal Endangered Species Act requirements for aquatic species. It will also assure landowners who conduct their forestry operations in accordance with the state’s rules that they are not liable for individual civil or criminal actions under the Endangered Species Act.

The Forest Practices HCP is a result of the Salmon Recovery Act, passed by the state Legislature in 1999 with bipartisan support, and subsequently adopted in 2001 into Washington’s forest practices rules. Since these new regulations were implemented nearly four years ago, some 1,500 miles of forest roads have been properly abandoned. In addition, more than 1,200 fish-passage barriers have been repaired or replaced, opening up 690 stream miles of fish habitat — greater than the distance of a round trip between Seattle and Spokane.

The HCP incorporates those rules, protecting salmon and water, and producing habitat alongside forest streams. The plan establishes wider areas of no-cut buffers along streams, restricts logging on unstable slopes, and sets new standards for road construction to reduce sediment in streams. It also ensures that if these rules don’t achieve the goals or are determined to be overly stringent, changes based on science can be made through a process called “adaptive management.”

Adaptive management involves gathering and using information from the best available science to validate and improve management decisions and on-the-ground practices. Washington’s forest practices rules will be monitored to ensure the objectives of restoringsalmon habitat and protecting water quality are met. If these objectives are not being met, the rules can be changed through peer-reviewed scientific research and recommendations. The federal authorities can revoke the HCP if adaptive management falls short of their scientific standards.

This level of protection comes at a high cost, especially for family forest landowners who must sacrifice greater percentages of their property to no-cut buffers and other protective measures. State-sponsored cost-sharing and technical-assistance programs are helping ease this economic burden.

Washington’s Forest Practices HCP reflects a successful partnership that will preserve healthy forests and clean streams, securing sustainable forest management that is scientifically based, environmentally sound and economically viable. Longer than eight years in the making, it has withstood transitions in major public offices, including the U.S. presidency, Washington state’s governorship and public lands commissioner. Today, it is backed unanimously by our congressional delegation. Developed with unprecedented collaboration across all sectors — tribes, environmental organizations, timber industry, large and small forestland owners, federal, state and local government agencies — this HCP is one of a kind.

More than half of Washington state is forested, and I want it to remain that way. Our forestlands provide wildsalmon — the very symbol of the Pacific Northwest — and clean water, both vital to our economy, diversity and quality of life.

As the population continues to expand, urban growth encroaches into our forests and farmlands, replacing fish and wildlife habitat. Keeping forestry economically viable in Washington helps protect our forestlands from conversion to uses that are far less desirable for salmon recovery, and that affect our sense of place.

Doug Sutherland is state commissioner of public lands. NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are accepting public comment on the Forest Practices Habitat Conservation Plan through May 12. The draft HCP and instructions on how to comment are available on the state Department of Natural Resources’ Web site, www.dnr.wa.gov