There are students and forests in this story and a chunky Pacific seabird, the endangered marbled murrelet, who's become a flagship species in the forest preservation movement.
In a lawsuit filed March 31, the Seattle Audubon Society, the Olympic Forest Coalition and others are contesting two timber sales on the Olympic Peninsula that they say violate the state's federal habitat conservation plan. The land is managed by the Department of Natural Resources and includes forests that had been specifically identified for protection and recovery of the endangered bird, according to the lawsuit. Brian Windrope of Seattle Audubon says, “We regret having to appeal these two sales because we would far prefer investing our time and resources in working with DNR and other forest stakeholders to implement DNR's federal habitat conservation plan. But they gave us no choice.”
DNR would not comment directly about the lawsuit nor would their program manager for long-term conservation of the marbled murrelets speak directly with this reporter. In an email, officials said they will “vigorously contest” the lawsuit. “The sales are consistent with DNR policies, state regulations and our Habitat Conservation Plan," the email said. "We do not harvest old-growth forests, the habitat the marbled murrelet generally uses to nest. We do not harvest known occupied habitat.”
They also noted that 500,000 acres of DNR's forested land base is dedicated to long-term conservation and habitat for multiple threatened and endangered species.
Two particular sales are at the heart of the dispute. Called Goodmint and Rainbow Rock, clever names assigned by foresters often at whim or for area landmarks; the sales include 230 acres of sub-mature forests. A portion of the revenue they generate, approximately $700,000, will go to the University of Washington. Those filing the lawsuit say the money will fund a tiny fraction of the UW's construction and remodel costs. In a March letter, the environmental groups requested that the University ask DNR to stop the sale of “science-identified recovery habitat” until a long term conservation strategy is adopted. The absence of such a strategy is another bone of contention.
University of Washington administrators were reluctant to comment. A series of calls to media relations and other offices brought little comment except to point out that timber sales are managed by DNR and the “feedback loop” is in the hands of the Board of Natural Resources, whose members include Gov. Jay Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark.
Tom DeLuca, the director of the University's School of Environmental and Forest Science, sits on the board where he is apparently the only board member troubled by the sales. He was out of town when the Board approved the sales, but he submitted a recommendation to DNR to defer the timber harvests and “consider repackaging them as experimental harvests looking at different alternatives to the existing or status quo management approach.” However, he says it's not economically viable to thin trees on the types of stands under dispute. "Selective cutting" is the term environmental groups prefer. DeLuca, however, believes that the harvests are “well within the realm of what would be normal." Seventy years down the road, says DeLuca, timber harvests will be significantly different when technology has developed to allow thinning to co-exist with maintaining mature trees.
But marbled murrelets may not have that long to recover, says a murrelet expert unaffiliated with the lawsuit, John Marzluff, with the UW's College of the Environment. He points to a 2008 science report completed for DNR that specifically identified “Marbled Murrelet Management Areas” critical to the birds recovery. There are areas that absolutely need to be preserved, he says, because it's habitat now and offers opportunities for experimenting "with ways to increase the suitability as quickly as possible for murrelets.”
Kara Whitaker, staff scientist with the Washington Forest Law Center who is representing the conservation groups, says the biggest problem with the timber sales is that they will lead to habitat fragmentation. “When you clear cut in a contiguous forest you attract nest predators, mostly stellar's jays and that puts all of these nesting birds at risk.” Nesting success is the key factor in getting the population stable and ultimately growing.
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