Chunky seabird in the crosshairs of state's timber-cutting machinery

Environmentalists say the marbled murrelet deserves much more protection than the state Department of Natural Resources is willing to give.
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Diminishing returns: A marbled murrelet fishes for dinner.

Environmentalists say the marbled murrelet deserves much more protection than the state Department of Natural Resources is willing to give.

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.

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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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.