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In the past decade, there's been a 30 percent decline in the birds in Washington, Oregon and northern California.The availability of food in the ocean as well as viable nesting habitats in forests adjacent to the ocean are the main contributing factors.
The American Forest Resources Council, whose members make use of DNR managed lands for a portion of their source of timber, have joined the agency in fighting the environmental groups' lawsuit. The council says the sales are well within the Marbled Murrelet Management Area identified in the 2008 Science Report. The council's Ann Forest Burns acknowledges a long term conservation plan has been slow in coming. It's due out next year, seven years after it was recommended. But she says that, for now, DNR is following an interim plan and habitat conservation plan developed in 1997 — which critics say was before much was known about the murrelet.
Even when the murrelet's decline became clear, however, says Burns, “DNR can't just say we'll do what's best for the bird, because [the agency] has a fiduciary responsibility for each county, school and institution of higher learning it manages forest land for.” It's a huge barrier, she says, “to simply doing what the scientists would like in the best of all possible worlds for the bird.”
But fiduciary responsibility could be viewed with a broader lens if the state chose, says Mitch Friedman with Conservation NW, not a party to the lawsuit. Dig into the state constitution, he says, and you'll find something rarely discussed these days: the public trust doctrine. What is it? You don't really have to go back to the Magna Carta but that's where you'll find the origins. The Magna Carta was a compact between government and people over who resources — water, river, wildlife — belonged to, explains Friedman. “The people sued the King because he was building weirs [dams] in the rivers and they relied on the fish. The Magna Carta recognized those resources belong to the people.” In a paper written for Conservation NW in 2000, attorney (and Crosscut contributing writer) Daniel Jack Chasan, made a good argument, says Friedman, that the state constitution gives a lot of emphasis to public trust doctrine interpretation.
What this interpretation could mean for the plight of the murrelet is that fiduciary responsibilities would be balanced with public trust doctrine, or the public's right to enjoy rivers, streams, murrelets and salmon. It wouldn't be one of the other. Carolyn Sarah Woods, who will graduate from the University of Washington with a degree in Conservation Biology in June, says the timber sales and the University's position put her in a frustrating position. She's spent four years learning about sustainable forestry practices and conservation biology principles. “It's really disappointing to see all those lessons that I've learned basically ignored and to see that funding the University where I'm affiliated.” Acutely aware, as she puts it, of how difficult it is to fund education in the state, she still contends that “we need to come up with more sustainable ways of funding our schools that don't focus on resource extraction that's not sound in the long term”
DNR plans to bring proposed alternatives to the Board of Natural Resources within the next few months. The alternative will be analyzed as part of an Environmental Impact Statement. Last year, a King County Superior Court judge rejected DNR's attempt to log 12,000 acres of low-priority marbled murrelet habitat, saying the plan needed to wait until a long term conservation strategy was adopted.
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