After almost two decades under an interim plan that state officials say wasn’t working, the state released its long-term conservation plan Friday for the marbled murrelet, a threatened seabird that nests in old-growth forests off the Pacific Coast.
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said the plan is the “best balance” for protecting the birds while also supporting rural communities, such as Wahkiakum County, that depend on sales of state timber to fund local governments.
However, groups on both sides of the yearslong debate expressed dissatisfaction with the plan.
Wahkiakum County Commissioner Dan Cothren seemed resigned Friday after reviewing the plan, noting it “just isn’t going to make that big of a difference here.”
He noted Wahkiakum County lost nearly $1 million of revenue and cut its county staff by about 30% under the interim murrelet plan. And “not even a fraction” of the 100,000 acres that will be freed for harvest under the new plan is located in his county, leaving a significant amount of Wahkiakum state forest land barred from harvest.
“We get hurt big time. We’ve been hurt since 1997 because we haven’t done activity in these units,” Cothren said. “It’s a huge loss of revenue, and it will continue to be that until we find other avenues to restore the timberlands.”
The new state plan, known as “Alternative H,” sets aside about 272,000 acres of Department of Natural Resources-managed forest land within 55 miles of the Pacific Coast for bird habitat. It would prohibit the department from cutting the timber there. But it also frees up 100,000 acres that was previously barred from logging under the state “interim” conservation plan. No private land is involved.
Alternative H “best balances our duties to meet the Endangered Species Act obligation with our duty to support rural communities,” Commissioner Franz told The Daily News. “It is also designed specifically to minimize the impacts to Pacific, Clallam and Wahkiakum counties,” which have economies that rely heavily on timber harvest.
Conservationists, though say the plan is not protective enough.
“DNR is trying to find a balance between the two sides, and we are not sure that even exists,” said Kara Whittaker, lead technical scientist for the Marbled Murrelet Coalition, a multi-organization conservation group. “The bird needs more habitat than they are proposing, unfortunately, and the beneficiaries need more (revenue) than they are proposing.”
The murrelet was listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1992. Five years later, Washington state released an interim plan to protect the bird. Their population in the state has declined by 44%, to about 7,500 birds, since 2001.
Franz said Alternative H is intended to resume logging on timberland to benefit countries like Wahkiakum while also preserving marbled murrelet habitat.
According to DNR, the marbled murrelet population declined 3.9% annually between 2001 and 2016 largely due to habitat loss. DNR estimates that about 6,000 murrelets are left in the state.
State Rep. Brian Blake, an Aberdeen Democrat whose district includes Wahkiakum County, said he is happy that DNR completed its plan. But the details leave him with mixed feelings, he said.
“If this is accepted, that’ll mean that the 100,000 acres will be released for management and revenue production. … That will be the upside of getting this (plan) resolved,” Blake said Friday. “The frustrating part to me is that the conservation side of it, in my opinion, is somewhat dubious.”
DNR’s plan does little to boost the murrelet population, Blake said, referencing the agency’s bird population models. “Locking up what are currently in some places hand-planted Douglas fir plantations … is just not going to lead to murrelet conservation,” Blake said.
The plan restricts more timberland in Wahkiakum County than Blake says is probably needed. His colleague, 19th District State Rep. Jim Walsh, agreed.
“What Alternative H does is lock up both land that DNR scientists have observed the bird on, but it also locks up what they call ‘reclassified habitat land,’ which is land that no one has observed the bird on,” Walsh said Friday. “Some of the land being locked up isn’t old growth. It’s second- or third-growth,” where the birds aren’t known to nest.
DNR intends to manage those younger stands to accelerate their ability to harbor murrelets.
Conservationists are frustrated that DNR’s plan takes away too little land for harvest. Whittaker also pointed to the murrelet population models to highlight other two other “alternatives” proposed by DNR that were projected to benefit the bird population more.
“While we acknowledge the small communities like Wahkiakum County that are very dependent on this source of revenue … we are at this very crucial point in time for the species,” Whittaker said. “That’s why we are really urging DNR to do as much as possible as they can for the species before it’s too late.”
Franz acknowledged that neither side thinks alternative H is the “perfect plan,” but it does the best job of “reaching a compromise that recognizes the environmental, economic and social needs in from that.” It still needs approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is expected to rule on the plan before the end of this year.
On Whidbey Island, where the marbled murrelet is the subject of a different conversation, the Navy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under pressure from state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, are about to take another look at how the bird might be affected by an increasing number of EA18-G Growler training flights out of Air Station Whidbey Island.
Under a March decision by the Navy, those flights are authorized to increase by a third, to 97,500 annually, as the Growler fleet expands from 82 jets to as many as 118.
Ferguson’s office, along with a citizens group, has challenged the adequacy of an environmental impact study regarding the birds.
Correction: This post has been updated to show that State Rep. Brian Blake, is an Aberdeen Democrat.
Material from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.