A marbled murrelet (U.S. Forest Service)

A marbled murrelet (U.S. Forest Service)

State sets preferred alternative for marbled murrelet protection

OLYMPIA — The state Board of Natural Resources has selected a preferred alternative for the long-term conservation of the marbled murrelet.

The board voted 5-1 this month — with Clallam County Commissioner Bill Peach opposed — to select an option that sets aside 620,000 to 624,000 acres of Western Washington forest land for the protection of the threatened seabird.

“This feels like a final decision, but it’s not,” said Angus Brodie, state Department of Natural Resources deputy supervisor of uplands, at the Nov. 7 meeting in Olympia.

“This is just the selection of that preferred alternative so we can go back and do that further analysis.”

Thousands of acres

About 583,000 acres of DNR-managed land is considered “off base” for species conservation under the agency’s 1997 Habitat Conservation Plan, or HCP, officials said.

The staff-recommended, board-approved alternative would set aside an additional 41,000 to 37,000 acres for the protection of the small bird that nests in coastal forests.

“That’s about a quarter of a billion dollars they added, and I just don’t feel good about it,” Peach said in a Friday interview.

Peach said he favored an alternative that met the minimum requirements of the Endangered Species Act while allowing the most harvest.

DNR’s preferred option establishes 20 special habitat areas for murrelet conservation, many of which are in the Olympic Experimental Forest on the west end of Clallam and Jefferson counties.

DNR manages timberland on behalf of trust beneficiaries such as counties, schools and other junior taxing districts such as hospitals, libraries and fire departments.

The preferred alternative complies with the federal Endangered Species Act, reduces short-term impacts of murrelet “take” by metering harvests until long-term habitat is established, mitigates uncertainties and ensures that no trust or beneficiary is unduly impacted, DNR officials said.

“From today’s decision, we can now move on to develop the conservation strategy that will serve our state for the next 50 years,” said Hillary Franz, commissioner of public lands and chair of the Board of Natural Resources, in a DNR news release.

“After 20 years of people and ecosystems held in limbo, we are now closer than ever to achieving long-term legal certainty for marbled murrelet conservation, our trust beneficiaries and ongoing timber harvest.”

Peach, a retired forester who represents 21 timber counties on the Board of Natural Resources, said he favored Alternative B, which would have protected murrelet-occupied sites and conserved about 593,000 acres of timberland.

The seven alternatives presented by DNR ranged from 593,000 acres of protection to 734,000 acres of protection.

Alternative B was favored by representatives of the timber industry and junior taxing districts.

Many Clallam County residents who testified at DNR meetings or submitted written comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement favored Alternative B.

“If you look at the comments that came in, it was the beneficiaries that proposed Alternative B,” Peach told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Friday.

“I wanted to support those people.”

Alternative B would likely meet the minimum requirements of the Endangered Species Act while the DNR-preferred option goes beyond what is necessary, Peach added.

“We’re scratching our heads trying to figure out why Alternative B is unlikely to meet [ESA] issuance criteria,” Port of Port Angeles Commissioner Connie Beauvais said during public testimony at the five-hour Board of Natural Resources meeting Nov. 7.

“When did that change?”

The Marbled Murrelet Coalition, a group of conservation organizations working to protect murrelets and their habitat, said DNR’s preferred alternative does not set aside enough habitat and fails to incorporate best-available science.

“The Board of Natural Resources alternative comes up short,” the coalition said in a Nov. 8 statement.

“Marbled murrelets need old forest habitat to survive, and protecting and restoring habitat on state trust lands in southwest Washington and on the Olympic Peninsula provides the best opportunity for murrelet recovery.”

Wahkiakum County Commissioner Dan Cothren testified that setting aside more acres of working forest would have a crippling effect on timber counties.

“That’s putting a nail in our coffin lid,” Cothren said at the Nov. 7 meeting.

DNR will prepare a draft supplemental Environmental Impact Statement analyzing the preferred alternative and submit a draft amendment to the Habitat Conservation Plan to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by the spring of 2018, officials said.

After more public comment periods, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will issue a final response to DNR in 2019.

In a Monday meeting with his fellow county commissioners, Peach said the 620,000 to 624,000 acres of special habitat area in DNR’s preferred alternative is intended to create islands of protection to foster marbled murrelet recovery.

“We have 1.6 million acres [of protected forest] here in Clallam County between the [Olympic National] Park and the [U.S.] Forest Service,” Peach said.

“Why isn’t that 1.6 million acres solving the problem? There’s something else going on.”

In other action from the Board of Natural Resources meeting, members voted 6-0 to direct staff to develop policies that address arrearage and riparian harvests.

Arrearage is the timber that DNR promised to sell but failed to sell in the 2005 to 2014 planning decade.

DNR is still developing a sustainable harvest calculation for 2015 to 2024.

Franz announced that she would assemble a committee called a “solutions table” in the coming weeks to support counties experiencing economic hardship as a result of murrelet conservation and to propose ways to aid in the recovery of the marbled murrelet outside of the Habitat Conservation Plan.

The committee will be composed of representatives of local governments, trust beneficiaries, timber industry and conservationists, DNR officials said.

“I truly believe that it is possible to find a pathway whereby people, ecosystems and economies are all supported and given a fair chance to thrive,” said Franz, who was elected to the post last year.

“We have limited room in the HCPA [Habitat Conservation Plan Amendment] to find solutions between two legal requirements: that we protect the murrelet under the ESA and that we meet a fiduciary obligation to deliver revenues to trust beneficiaries,” Franz added.

“Regardless of the legal drivers, the challenge of preserving a species and the prosperity of our neighbors is something we must face together, as one community of Washington state.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].

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