Contested timber sale advancing

DNR’s ‘Power Plant’ sale near Elwha River being finalized

PORT ANGELES — A controversial timber sale near the Elwha River is moving ahead, despite opposition from some local elected officials and environmentalists.

On July 26, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) opened bids for auctioning off the 126-acre “Power Plant” timber sale about 7 miles west of Port Angeles even as environmental groups were trying to challenge the sale in court. Murphy Company of Eugene, Ore., won the contract.

DNR has no plans to cancel the sale, said Kenny Ocker, communications manager for DNR, on Thursday.

“If the state were to do that without a court order, we could be liable to lawsuits for breach of contract from the purchaser and the beneficiaries,” Ocker said.

Ocker said paperwork had been finalized and all that remained before logging could begin was a pre-work meeting with the company. That meeting had not yet been scheduled, Ocker said.

The company must complete operations by the end of the contract, Oct. 31, 2024.

A lawsuit filed June 30 by the Earth Law Center, Center for Whale Research and the Keystone Species Alliance argued the sale was too close to the Elwha River watershed, and logging at the site would negatively impact restoration efforts and water levels on the river.

The potential impacts on the Elwha River — the only source of drinking water for the City of Port Angeles — raised concerns from city officials and members of the state Legislature.

“The Elwha is world renowned for the dam removal and the restoration,” said Elizabeth Dunne, a Port Angeles resident and policy director for the Earth Law Center, referring to the removal of two dams on the river between 2011 and 2014.

“We really need to be paying attention to what is happening in the watershed,” Dunne said.

The lawsuit alleges that DNR failed to conduct adequate studies concerning impacts on instream flows, groundwater recharge, and water temperature and failed to consider impacts on local wildlife.

Bidders had been made aware of the lawsuit in the auction packet.

On July 25, a Clallam County judge ruled the timber sale could continue.

Dunne said DNR could still stop the sale and has been working on a public outreach campaign to urge Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz to take action. Dunne also has started the Elwha Forest Fund, a public fundraising campaign attempting to raise enough money to match the amount of the timber sale.

As of Friday, the forest fund had raised $12,940 while the minimum bid for the Power Plant sale was $463,000 and Murphy was the high bid with $656,797.

Both Port Angeles Mayor Kate Dexter and City Manager Nathan West sent letters to DNR stating the city opposed the sale and asking for a pause while other options are considered.

“Logging these forests compromises efforts to restore endangered salmon habitat, threatens other endangered and recovering species, destroys essential carbon sinks; and threatens Port Angeles’ sole drinking water source,” Dexter wrote in a June 1 letter.

In August, another letter was sent to Franz, this time signed by Dexter, West; Port Angeles City Council Members LaTrisha Suggs, Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin and Navarra Carr; state Reps. Mike Chapman and Steve Tharinger — who represent the North Olympic Peninsula — and Tara Simmons and Beth Doglio, all Democrats.

Also signatories to that letter were Port of Seattle Commissioner Toshiko Hasegawa; King County Council Chair Dave Upthegrove and former Lower Elwha S’Klallam Tribe Council member Ed Johnson.

“The federal government has spent $327 million in Elwha River restoration post-dam removal. We want to explore win-win solutions that will help (DNR) be able to do its part,” the letter said.

“We are not expressing opposition to all logging on state lands but believe that the unique location of this forest and the importance of the Elwha River Watershed warrants proactive discussion of a long-term plan for harvests that protects the river.”

Some favor sale

Not all local officials were opposed to the sale.

Clallam County Commissioner Randy Johnson said he and other commissioners were confident that DNR’s environmental considerations were sound, and said commissioners had heard extensively from groups supporting and opposed to the Power Plant sale.

“What upsets me a little bit is people don’t understand the requirements that DNR goes through before harvesting any area,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the department brings in a range of specialists to study an area and complies with regulations from several federal agencies.

Money from state timber sales goes to support local services in the county’s junior taxing districts where a harvest occurs, including schools, fire departments and hospitals.

“We just set aside thousands of acres of timberland to protect the marbled murrelet,” Johnson said, referring to a 2020 program that set aside 168,000 acres of timberland for the endangered bird.

“That just occurred and cost us the county, it’s another hit to the county coffers,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he and the other commissioners prioritized protecting river habitats and the environment, but they trusted DNR’s forest management practices.

That program resulted in lawsuits from junior taxing districts on the West End who argued DNR was neglecting its fiduciary duty to support small communities.

DNR’s Ocker said the timber sale was 0.03 percent of the Elwha watershed and there are 160-foot buffer zones between the timberland and the waterways.

“It’s only 64 acres of the sale are actually in the Elwha River watershed and research has shown there would be no discernible change in peak flows or low flows in such a small change in forest cover and the watershed,” Ocker said.

“It’s not just us,” Ocker said, referring to DNR’s findings. “There’s federal concurrence on it and it’s in compliance with the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.”

Michael Haglund, a Portland attorney representing Murphy Company, said the company disagrees with criticisms of the sale.

“It’s a small harvest, it’s not going to affect the watershed in any way. It’s supported by science and silviculture,” Haglund said.

The proof the project was well supported by science was demonstrated by the judge’s decision not to place an injunction on the sale, Haglund said.

There are rigorous environmental standards necessary for a public timber sale to survive a legal challenge, Haglund said.

“It’s a high bar,” he said.

There are several regulations around when a timber harvest can occur, Haglund said, and Murphy would likely begin harvesting in 2024.

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at peter.segall@peninsuladailynews.com.

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