By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News
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After an hourlong presentation last week from attorneys on both sides of the issue, Jefferson County Superior Court Judge Keith Harper ruled against the plaintiffs, permitting the timber harvest by Interfor, which has mills in Forks and Port Angeles.
The judge ruled Friday that the area in question is outside of the murrelet's habitat and that the plaintiffs could have filed an action in advance of the beginning of the logging operation, which had been scheduled to begin Saturday.
The injunction request, filed by the Seattle Audubon Society and the Olympic Forest Coalition, sought to prevent the scheduled logging of 234 acres of timber in the state Department of Natural Resources' Goodmint and Rainbow Rock sites in west Clallam and Jefferson counties south of Forks.
Environmentalists said that the area had been set aside under the state's marbeled murrelet habitat conservation plan with the federal government.
The marbled murrelet, a member of the auk family, is listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The units are second-growth timber surrounded by old-growth forests.
Old-growth forests trees near the ocean are considered critical habitat for the small seabird's nesting habitat.
State officials said the second-growth trees in question are not vital to the murrelet's habitat, while Interfor said the trees are badly needed to supply the company's mill in Beaver and delays are costing jobs.
The environmental groups argued that while the area in question was not the old growth forest where the endangered bird usually lives, its proximity made it an important habitat for the bird.
The ruling “was a big disappointment,” said Monica Fletcher, chairwoman of the North Olympic Peninsula chapter of the Sierra Club.
“This bird has really relied on old growth but needs a contiguous area to survive.
“The bird is under assault from the land and the sea and we need to keep going on this.”
Harper disagreed, saying that it was clear the area was not within the habitat and the logging can proceed.
Wyatt Golden, an attorney for the plaintiffs,' said the last-minute timing of the injunction was because the plaintiffs were exhausting all other options.
Harper disagreed, stating “plaintiffs could have filed an action months ago.”
Approving the injunction would cause the logging company, Interfor, a lumber company with mills in Forks and Port Angeles, to lose money on its investment of $2,126,413 for the timber, Elaine Spencer, an attorney representing Interfor, told the judge.
The company bid in April $1,420,411 for the timber from the Goodmint unit in Jefferson and Clallam counties and $706,002 for the Rainbow Rock timber in Jefferson County, she said.
The bids were based on prices that could fall if the logging is delayed, Spencer said, so delay could cost the company money.
“These bids are based on current prices and could be quite different next summer,” said Spencer.
She added that 81 jobs are connected to the logging operation.
Golden responded that “the harm suffered to the environment is irrevocable while the economic harm is temporary.”
The logging action is taking place without an Environmental Impact Statement.
Sometimes such a statement is required under the State Environmental Policy Act, but, said DNR attorney Paul Lawrence, not in this case, a position Harper supported.
Plaintiffs' attorney Peter Goldman disagreed.
“This is a radical departure from DNR's normal way of dealing with timber sales,” he said after the hearing.
“DNR generally does SEPA for every timber sale.
“What's very concerning is that if DNR is taking a new position, that is very concerning to the conservation community.”
Friday's ruling doesn't affect pending lawsuits to stop the harvests but “removes the urgency” in that action.
“This is just 230 acres but is representative of thousands of acres that were identified for marbled murrelet conservation that are now at risk,” Goldman said.
“It doesn't set a legal precedent but it gives DNR a green light to log habitat that was identified for conservation.”
Ann Forest Burns, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, said she was pleased by the decision.
Granting the injunction would have set a different precedent, she said.
“If this was granted, then no landowner would ever want to enter into a deal with the government,” she said.
“They would see that every time an environmental group doesn't like a timber sale, they can file an injunction.”
On May 30, the state announced the harvest could begin as of June 13.
“The timber in the Goodmint and Rainbow Rock sales is relatively immature. There is no marbled murrelet habitat in these sales, and we are protecting the nearby habitat with a buffer nearly double the width of what's required of private landowners in Washington,” Kyle Blum, DNR's deputy supervisor for state uplands, said then.
Revenue from DNR land goes to schools, universities, county governments and other public institutions. The Board of Natural Resources sets policies for land management and approves timber sales.
While Harper's action cleared the way for logging to begin on Saturday it was unclear whether this would occur “as many of those involved might be working on other projects,” Burns said.
Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie contributed to this story.