Nowhere is enthusiasm for Habitat Conservation Plans greater than in the Pacific Northwest. For that, thank (or blame) the northern spotted owl.


Since 1990, when the owl was listed as a threatened species, the federal government has approved eight HCPs covering nearly 2.4 million acres of state and private lands in Washington, Oregon and California. Thirty-seven more, covering an additional 5.8 million acres, are in the works.


Corporate timberland owners were the first to draw up HCPs because they realized that restrictions imposed by federal and state agencies to protect the owl's habitat threatened their ability to log for maximum profit. But state and municipal landowners, as well as small woodland owners, have also jumped in recently, persuaded that the economic certainty provided by HCPs outweighs the cost of putting the plans together.


But as HCPs proliferate and include not only the owl but hundreds of species, conservationists and scientists are beginning to ask hard questions:


Won't the plans create a patchwork of sanctuaries and danger zones for fish and wildlife?


Shouldn't the plans follow consistent standards?


And what about public involvement?


Answers are hard to come by. The few conservationists who track HCPs have their hands full just monitoring their local back yards. Development of the plans is a time-consuming process and not always a public one. Even the agencies working with the landowners - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service - concede that their plates are so full they have little time to consider the big picture.





"I have real mixed feelings about the whole HCP process," says Forest Service research biologist Eric Forsman, the first biologist to study the northern spotted owl. "It's good for landowners in that it provides them with a predictable future. But whether or not it will help owls is very debatable."


Plans in the owl region are all over the map, says Bill Vogel, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who worked on one with Plum Creek Timber Co. in Washington. "The standard should be Plum Creek," he says. "Instead, during negotiations, it becomes whatever a company can get away with."





From one species to hundreds


Following the short history of HCPs in the Northwest is a little like tracking the computer industry: Every time you turn around there's a more sophisticated model on the shelf.


The earliest HCPs were designed to help landowners cope with just one species: the owl. Not surprisingly, the first companies to develop HCPs were those that had lots of owls and lots of constraints on logging. Simpson Timber Co. pioneered the process with a 1992 owl plan that covered 380,000 acres of redwoods in northern California. Skewed toward logging, the plan drew sharp criticism from owl biologists.


HCPs that followed had to take into account a second species, the marbled murrelet. The seabird nests in old-growth stands and was listed as a threatened species in 1992.


Ecosystem management debuted next in 1993, when federal scientists developed the president's Northwest Forest Plan. It covered not only owls and murrelets but the full array of old-growth associated species, from bats to bugs, as well as declining runs of chinook, coho and sockeye salmon.


Though the president's plan ignored private lands, it set the stage for the next generation of multispecies HCPs - a trend that gathered momentum the following year when the Clinton administration came out with its "no surprises' policy. By including dozens or even hundreds of potential endangered species in their plans under "no surprises," landowners gained assurance that their timbering plans couldn't be changed to increase wildlife protection, even if new species were listed in the future.


Recent multispecies plans include two state-land plans - a 93,000-acre plan for the Elliot State Forest in the Oregon Coast Range approved in 1995 and a controversial plan covering 1.6 million acres of state trust lands in Washington. No plan has been as highly touted as the Plum Creek HCP, which covers 285 species on 160,000 acres in central Washington. But the Plum Creek and the Washington state plans have drawn criticism from conservationists who fear they won't deliver what they promise for species (see page 15).


Both plans allowed for public participation, but critics say that was the exception, not the rule. Many plans have had virtually no public input, says Sybil Ackerman, who monitors HCPs for the National Wildlife Federation. She is battling the Oregon Natural Resources Department to hold more public meetings for an HCP covering 600,000 acres of state lands in northwestern Oregon, and which would allow extensive logging.





"This is the last temperate rain forest in the area and is within an hour of Portland, yet they wanted it to be as quiet as possible," says Ackerman.


One plan that snuck through with little public scrutiny was a 1995 plan covering Weyerhaeuser Co." s 209,000-acre Millicoma tree farm in the Oregon Coast Range. The plan offers minimal protection for the 79 owls on or near the land, allowing the company to cut nearly all the owl habitat during the first 20 years of the plan. Owl biologist Forsman says the plan may pose an even greater risk to marbled murrelets: "Those lands are about the only place murrelets have to go nest on that section of the coast, unless they fly 40 miles inland," he says.





Weyerhaeuser's mega-plan


The most controversial multispecies HCP now under discussion is another Weyerhaeuser plan. The Willamette HCP, covering 400,000 heavily logged and roaded acres in western Oregon, would encompass five major river basins and the city of Eugene's municipal watershed. It is home to owls, murrelets, goshawks, bald eagles, Western pond turtles, and a number of imperiled fish runs, including coho, steelhead and Chinook salmon and Umpqua cutthroat trout.


Though it promises to protect habitat for these and many other species over its 80-year life span, the plan allows Weyerhaeuser to cut most of its remaining older forests - about one-quarter of its holdings - by the year 2025.


Federal agencies pulled the plan back for further review earlier this year after it drew sharp criticism from environmentalists and a panel of biologists, who said the plan failed to protect streams and fish adequately. The biggest sticking point in negotiations was Weyerhaeuser's refusal to consider protective buffers along non-fish-bearing streams.


Ward Armstrong, executive director of the Oregon Forest Industries Council, predicted in June that if the Weyerhaeuser Willamette plan failed to win approval, few other timber companies would be inclined to develop HCPs.


Nevertheless, on July 2, federal agencies suspended action on the plan until the state of Oregon comes up with stricter protection for coastal streams statewide. The National Marine Fisheries Service has insisted that Oregon adopt tighter streamside logging restrictions as a condition of the agency's decision not to list depleted coho salmon runs in most Oregon coastal streams (HCN, 5/12/97) The new stream rules could set a higher standard for HCPs all over the Pacific Northwest, says Tryg Sletteland, executive director of the non-profit Pacific Rivers Council.





Half full or half empty?


The heavy volume of HCPs, coupled with pressure from the administration to bring as many landowners into the HCP fold as possible, has stretched agency staffs thin. Critics both inside and outside the agencies say that under this kind of stress, large corporations and their teams of biologists may be able to win approval of plans that do little more than rubber-stamp their corporate goals.





"These plans are not improving over time," says Brian Vincent, conservation director of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance based in Bellingham, Wash.


Others find a ray of hope in the recent suspension of the Weyerhaeuser Willamette Plan. "The fact that a plan with questionable biological benefits could not get through is a positive thing," says Ackerman.





"We're learning as we go," admits Curt Smitch, the associate regional director of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service for Region 1. Smitch says his agency has even turned down a few HCP proposals. "I'm absolutely convinced we are better off with HCPs than without them.





"Washington alone is getting 100,000 new people a year and we're losing forest lands at a phenomenal rate," Smitch says. "If we can lock up lands for 50 years with good management practices, that's better than sitting back with the state forest practices law and seeing what happens."


Tim Cullinen, a staffer with the National Audubon Society who has worked on private-lands forestry issues for a decade, agrees HCPs have raised the bar for protection, but he's not sure that justifies locking them in for a half-century.


Over the past 25 years, Washington's streamside-cutting policy has evolved from one that allowed skidders in the streambed and the cutting of every single tree to the current policy of a 25-foot buffer. The 150-foot buffers in most HCPs seem huge compared to what the state law requires, he says, "but we could go well beyond that in 50 years. The president's Forest Plan already calls for 300-foot buffers on public lands."


Fortunately, Cullinen says, in the end HCPs probably won't cover more than 10 percent of the private lands in the region. "That's good," he says, "because these plans are an experiment."


To Brian Vincent, however, the HCP experiment is already out of control. "These plans cover whole landscapes. They're not mom-and-pop 5-acre lots," he says. "If you're going to experiment, maybe you should try starting a little smaller."


Despite the challenges, Vogel and others insist the agencies ought to move full-steam ahead while the prospect of new endangered species listings scares some companies into getting ahead of the curve.


"We're making some mistakes by moving too fast," Vogel acknowledges. "But I think it would be a major mistake to slow down, because I don't think this window of opportunity will be open that long."





" Kathie Durbin





Senior editor Paul Larmer contributed to this report.