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Daily World: "State board stalls four timber sales over murrelet"

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May 4, 2011 -- The state puts off four planned timber sales after environmental groups express concerns for the endangered marbled murrelet.

BY Steven Friederich 

OLYMPIA -- The state Department of Natural Resources put off four planned timber sales on Tuesday in the wake of letters from environmental groups asking that the harvest of state-owned timberlands in most of Pacific and Wahkiakum counties be put aside over concerns for the endangered marbled murrelet.

The delay stoked fears in the timber industry and timber-dependent counties that the agency might be giving in to demands from the environmental community at the expense of timber supply that supports employment.

"My concern is that these sales are going to get lost and the next sales that have the same issues are going to get lost and the counties are going to have some fiscal difficulties because of that," Pacific County Commissioner Jon Kaino said.

Fewer timber sales means a financial hit to county governments struggling to balance their budgets, because some of that money goes to the counties. Fewer sales also mean a reduction in supply for mills such as Sierra Pacific in Aberdeen and could ultimately translate into higher costs for other timber interests such as Cosmo Specialty Fibers in Cosmopolis.

Kaino, who represents timber counties on the state's Board of Natural Resources, warned agency staff that they were setting a dangerous precedent, but he hoped the timber sales could still move forward in a couple of months.

"If they just need to cross some T's and dot their I's, then that's fine," Kaino said. "But if the delay goes on too long, then we've got a lot more to talk about."

The Board of Natural Resources met Tuesday in Olympia to talk about the marbled murrelet and the current state of the agency's timber sales.

Agency staff talked about hiring new staff and developing a long-term plan to help the endangered shorebird. The goal is to develop some kind of conservation strategy in the next three years.

But some environmental groups say something needs to be done sooner.

Letters from the Seattle Audubon Society, Conservation Northwest, the Sierra Club and the Washington Environmental Council and the Olympic Forest Coalition asked that the Department of Natural Resources put aside 176,000 acres of state-owned timberland in Pacific and Wahkiakum counties.

The conservation groups argued that the land might be needed as habitat for the marbled murrelet and a better management plan is needed. Although the bird lives most of its life at sea, it needs old trees in coastal areas for nesting.

Marcy Golde, a board member for the Olympic Forest Coalition, told the Board of Natural Resources that the state agency had been dragging its feet. An interim strategy has been in place since 1997, but there's only been a series of studies done since then.

"This delay has been devastating to the murrelets, which have experienced an average decline rate of minus 7.31 percent for every year of the last decade," Golde told the board. "We find this decline deplorable and the delay in the plan's completion unacceptable. The combination of delay and decline is what has brought the Olympic Forest Coalition, at last, to the point of reconsidering all of our options," including legal ones, she added later.

One DNR report states that the number of marbled murrelets in Southwest Washington decreased from a high of 1,458 birds observed in 2003 to only 58 birds observed in 2008.

Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who is in charge of the state department, said the agency had already set aside almost 100,000 acres of both occupied habitat and re-classified habitat for the marbled murrelet, under a 1997 agreement between the federal government, DNR and the counties.

"So those lands are already off-limits to timber sales," Goldmark said, adding that there could be other reasons for the murrelets' decline in addition to loss of habitat. "The inference that the delay in our adoption of a long-term conservation strategy is directly linked to the decline of the bird is a stretch. There is considerable habitat, as I mentioned, and other land owners are also providing a tremendous amount of acreage."

Officials from Forks, Clallam County and Mason County testified before the board that they were concerned that delays in timber sales may impact not just Southwest Washington but timberland up and down the Olympic Peninsula.

Commissioner Kaino pointed out that one of the four delayed timber sales is in Grays Harbor, consisting of 137 acres near Oakville. There's also 96 acres near Menlo in Pacific County and two sales totaling 153 acres in Wahkiakum County.

Clay Sprague, a deputy supervisor at DNR, told the Board of Natural Resources that two of the sales could possibly come back in the next couple of months but the remaining two are squarely in the conflict involving the marbled murrelet and their request to delay timber sales at the request of the conservation groups. He said he wasn't sure when the sales will come back to the board for approval.

"I'm concerned that we're setting a precedent for every time we get a letter objecting to a sale," Kaino said. "None of the sales we're talking about is old growth and none of the sales are even habitat. In Pacific County, I've been in some of these areas and you can't even fit between two trees. It won't be habitat in 50 years. It won't be habitat in 100 years. It won't be habitat in 500 years."

Wahkiakum County Commissioner Dan Cothren told the board that his county has lost 30 percent of its staff due to the economic recession.

"It's just mind boggling trying to do a budget with less revenue from timber that our county counts so much on," Cothren said.

Jim McEntire, a commissioner with the Port of Port Angeles, presented the board with a resolution from his Port asking for the Board not to delay timber sales anywhere on the Olympic Peninsula or Southwest Washington.

"The decisions that you make regarding timber sales have great consequences economically, and in the scope of your discretion I ask that you take a look at the economic consequences in your decision making," McEntire said.

After the meeting, Commissioner Goldmark was asked by The Daily World if the decision to defer the sales was one that he made or one his staff made.

"We have discussions all the time and trying to give specific attribution to any person is not appropriate," Goldmark replied.

Goldmark said he had not yet formed an opinion on deferring sales to help the marbled murrelet. But he did tell his fellow board members earlier, "I want to assure everyone that we're moving forward in a very deliberate, diligent fashion to make sure the process is followed appropriately and the public and other interested parties have every chance to comment."

Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said he's concerned that even allowing a temporary deferral just for a few months could be a step in the wrong direction.

Blake also pointed out that some of the very same environmental groups looking to stop timber production because of the marbled murrelet are also behind efforts known as the Wild Olympics Campaign, which would affect timber production, as well.

"It's clear these groups are trying on different fronts to stop timber production all over the Olympic Peninsula," Blake said.