Tighter review of owl habitat rejected
State board instead suggests 'facilitator' talks
Thursday, November 10, 2005
By ROBERT MCCLURE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
OLYMPIA -- Stressing the need to collaborate with the timber industry to rescue the spotted owl, the state board that regulates logging companies rejected on Wednesday a proposal to more closely scrutinize timber cutting in the bird's remaining habitat.
The Forest Practices Board shot down the idea of forcing rigorous environmental reviews for logging on about 115,000 acres in 10 areas designated for "special emphasis" in helping the imperiled bird recover.
Washington has 7.8 million acres of private forestland containing roughly 178,000 acres of spotted owl habitat. Wildlife officials aren't sure how many of the owls remain, but say two-thirds of nesting sites identified a decade ago have been abandoned. (Editor's Note: The original version of this story overstated the amount of spotted owl habitat.)
Instead of the stepped-up reviews, the board called for environmentalists, timber companies, tribes and the government to work out their differences with the help of a professional "facilitator."
"It's going to take a united, collaborative approach," said John Mankowski of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Environmentalists and timber representatives quoted Shakespeare, invoked visions of grinding rural poverty and even recalled a backpacking trip to make their points Wednesday. In the end, the timber industry avoided the most severe restrictions contemplated before the meeting.
"They didn't do anything that will change anything on the ground by the time the birds' nesting season starts March 1," said Nina Carter, executive director of Audubon Washington.
A timber industry spokeswoman disagreed, saying the board took "serious action."
"I'm not saying we're happy with it, but they're taking a tough stance," said Cindy Mitchell of the Washington Forest Protection Association.
The board passed two new rules on an emergency basis that tighten restrictions on cutting near spotted owl nests. The first is a 120-day moratorium on cutting in areas where the birds once lived, but no longer do.
The second keeps landowners from claiming credit for owl-friendly actions taken by neighbors -- credit that can be used to boost timber harvests in owl-inhabited forests.
The first rule is expected to affect only a few sites. The timber industry had offered to do that, anyway, on a voluntary basis. It's unclear how many acres are affected by the second rule. Department of Natural Resources staff members said they knew of only 200 acres that definitely are affected, but others may be.
The board also adopted Wednesday three resolutions asking the DNR to evaluate its procedures for reviewing timber cuts, stating the board's desire for the state to participate heavily in an upcoming federal spotted owl recovery plan, and requesting the facilitator-aided peace talks.
Timber company representatives pointed out that something other than logging appears to be harming the spotted owl -- probably the barred owl, a competitor that appears to be pushing out its smaller cousin.
But environmentalists said the presence of the barred owl adds urgency to their case for preserving more forests suitable for the spotted owl.
"If another species, the barred owl, is putting pressure on it, we have to allow plenty of habitat," said hiker Laura Livingston of Seattle.
Toby Murray, a Forest Practices Board member who is a principal in a major timber company, warned that too much regulation will only drive forest landowners to sell to developers.
"I'm inclined to believe the reason the owl is declining is not necessarily because of anything that's going on private lands," Murray said. "The amount of habitat we influence is very small."
The biggest issue for the board was whether to require the detailed environmental reviews for logging in "special emphasis" areas for owls. That requirement was initially proposed by DNR staff members.
An internal memo by the forest products association said Pat McElroy, chairman of the Forest Practices Board, agreed in a meeting with timber interests last week that the requirement would be removed. The memo also said the timber representatives agreed with McElroy not to distribute the draft.
McElroy was later told by state Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, his boss, to distribute the draft in full, including the idea of the stepped-up environmental review. McElroy said Wednesday that the timber representatives misunderstood his comments and that DNR staff members already had decided to drop the requirement.
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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