Only 60% of logging operations meet state rules, report says: DNR takes look at deal with industry
February 14, 2007
By ROBERT McCLURE
A controversial 50-year deal between the state and logging companies was pitched as a way to save endangered salmon. But a new government report says spot checks found that only 60 percent of the logging operations complied with the rules.
Under the deal, timber companies won't face federal prosecution under the Endangered Species Act if their logging harms salmon and dozens of other kinds of fish and aquatic creatures across 9.3 million acres. But that forgiveness was based in part on the companies' word they would follow the rules and the state's promise to enforce them.
Even though that's not happening in two-fifths of the cases surveyed, it's unlikely the federal government -- which is ultimately in charge of enforcing the law -- will seek to revoke the pact.
The state Department of Natural Resources found that 60 percent of the logging operations followed all the rules its inspectors focused on in this review. About 7 percent failed to adhere to rules on all the items tested, and 33 percent were in partial compliance, says a draft report the state Forest Practices Board is scheduled to discuss today in Olympia.
"We would definitely like to see a higher proportion of the (operations) 100 percent compliant, and the most important thing about a report like this is it allows us to dig into it and see what kind of follow-up action we need to take," said Lenny Young, chief of DNR's forest practices division.
Young said the agency will launch a review by a team of independent experts -- a course some critics had urged earlier. The new report represents the agency's first comprehensive attempt to check on compliance with the rules since they went into effect in 2001.
Seattle lawyer Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center, who represents environmentalists, said a 60 percent grade equates to a D-minus.
"If you extrapolate this out across 9.3 million acres where you're basically waiving the Endangered Species Act ... it's a big deal," Goldman said. "We deserve to know whether this thing is being laid out (correctly) or not."
DNR spokeswoman Patty Henson emphasized a different set of statistics drawn from the same review.
While only 60 percent of the logging operations obeyed all the items tested, 79 percent of all the items tested across all the logging sites were in compliance, the report says.
"Sixty percent is a lower number and it sounds frankly alarmist, when we know if you look at it on an activity-by-activity basis, there's greater compliance," Henson said.
The report also says that at some logging operations, landowners did better than mandated, for example leaving more trees than required to buffer streams.
Only two of the 280 compliance items checked were deemed serious enough for inspectors to ask for further action by the agency, the report says. Cindy Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Washington Forest Protection Association, the state's main timber lobby, said that indicates most of the violations of rules weren't too serious.
"Most of the out-of-compliance (items) ... had more to do more with vagaries or lack of clarity or misunderstanding" the rules, Mitchell said. "It really pointed to a need for clarification and training."
The rules in question were hammered out after federal and state environmental regulators agreed with Washington timber companies on the "Forests and Fish" deal of 1999, which sought to allow logging to continue while doing something to help salmon.
In exchange, timber companies agreed to abide by new rules that required them, among other items, to take care of forest roads that slough off clouds of dirt into nearby streams, and to leave tree buffers alongside some streams to keep them cool and provide other benefits to salmon.
In part because it will last for 50 years, the deal has drawn fire from environmentalists. And some Indian tribes are also nervous. Adjustments can be made if the deal proves inadequate, although critics fear that regulators won't push hard enough to make that happen.
The federal agencies that agreed to the deal are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"We are really interested to see what (the state's) response is," said Bob Turner, a key negotiator of the deal for the fisheries service. "We don't expect 100 percent compliance, but we expect compliance to be in the ballpark that the (plan) will work over time" and help save salmon.
The report admits that the 97 timber operations checked were not a large enough number to make the review statistically significant among the thousands of timber cuts annually authorized in the state. To be statistically significant, the review would have to include more than 500 logging sites, which is impossible "within current budget and time constraints," the report says.
The review by the state Department of Natural Resources found:
· 60 percent of logging operations complied with all rules checked
· 7 percent violated all the rules checked
· 33 percent were in partial compliance
· 79 percent of all the items checked were in compliance
· Many instances of non-compliance were minor and "compliance was relatively low where the rules are vague and lack implementation guidance."
See the P-I's environmental blog at www.datelineearth.com. P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or email@example.com