Last call on timber plan for saving salmon
Thursday, May 12, 2005
Tribes split on value, adequacy of effort
Environmentalists and some Indian tribes today are expected to blast plans to give Washington's timber industry 50 years of protection from prosecution under Endangered Species Act rules protecting imperiled salmon runs.
Timber industry officials, the state Department of Natural Resources and other tribes are expected to endorse the deal.
Today is the deadline for the public to tell federal officials whether -- and under what conditions -- they should approve the pact.
Then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are expected to bless the deal. But first they must consider the public's opinion and write documents explaining why they believe the plan is a net plus for fish.
"There's been a lot of effort put into it, and the feeling is that this plan will be successful," said Sally Butts, the Fish and Wildlife staffer gathering public comment. But she added, "It's not a done deal until it's done."
It would be the latest -- and the West's largest -- of about 400 so-called "habitat conservation plans," which grant exemptions from rules that protect struggling species.
Washington's so-called "Forests and Fish" plan would be part of a burgeoning national program that leading conservation biologists and other critics say is pushing dwindling species closer to extinction.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer last week published results of a nine-month investigation that revealed numerous problems with the program, including spotty funding and enforcement.
Those are the same problems that environmentalists and some tribes are expected to highlight today.
"We're very concerned about the concept, which looks like it's simply giving people cover for half a century for all sorts of complex matters that are going to change over time," said Mason Morisset, a lawyer for the Tulalip tribes. "The scope of the plan is way too wide, and they have not considered a number of issues."
Opposition by the Tulalips and other tribes with fishing rights granted by treaties dating to the 1800s could pose a significant obstacle to the plan. Tribes are legally entitled to enough fish to catch, eat and trade, Morisset said, and this plan won't provide that.
Under rules adopted by the state after the Legislature endorsed the deal in 1999, timber companies must fix roads that shed stream-smothering dirt in rainstorms. They must leave trees uncut along larger streams, fix stream blockages that seal off fish from spawning grounds and take other steps to help salmon.
Supporters argue that it represents a big improvement over old rules that allowed logging to clobber some salmon runs. They say the industry deserves credit for committing itself to help fish in a way cities and farmers have not.
"You have to look at the economic value," said Cindy Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Washington Forest Protection Association, which represents timber companies. "It's costing real dollars, and its cost is in assets that are now untouchable."
State officials also have endorsed the plan, although Gov. Christine Gregoire recently asked aides to delve into the plan more fully, according to spokesman Jerry Gilliland. Gregoire took office in January, long after the pact was reached. In February, she praised it as "a national success, one of a kind because of its scope."
Environmentalists dropped out of negotiations on the pact when they saw an unacceptable result coming.
Habitat conservation plans "sound great on paper, but they don't amount to much once they're signed," said Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center. "The public should be concerned that Forests and Fish doesn't fall into the same pattern."
Internal e-mails and other documents obtained by the P-I show that within the federal agencies, a debate has raged over whether the plan is adequate to win approval.
And two independent science panels also said the plan was lacking, with one calling it "ill-informed."
HOW TO COMMENT
The deadline for comment on the Forests and Fish plan is today.