When Washington state's timber industry negotiated an agreement with state and federal agencies to protect and restore endangered salmon on commercial forest lands, the resulting "Forests and Fish" plan was hailed as a breakthrough. Gov. Gary Locke, who endorsed the plan in February of 1999, praised it as "an example of how saving salmon should work." The state's timber industry ran full-page newspaper ads proclaiming "Forests and Fish Forever." And the federal government touted the plan as a model for salmon recovery efforts on privately owned forestland in Oregon, California and Idaho.
Now it appears that many federal scientists had thought the plan allowed too much cutting along salmon streams, but their opinions were ignored and suppressed. In late January, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted internal National Marine Fisheries Service documents that suggest politics, not science, drove the government's approval of the plan.
When fisheries biologist Michael Pollock e-mailed Bob Turner, who negotiated the agreement for NMFS, with his professional assessment that the Forests and Fish Report is "not a scientifically credible document," his supervisor, Steven Landino, responded, "We do not agree with you. NMFS officially supports the Forest and Fish Report. You now work for NMFS ... mixed messages from NMFS would be bad." Fisheries scientist Theodore Meyers wrote in an internal memo that he worried about the "thinly supported information provided to explain buffer widths." Another scientist wrote, "Where's the science?"
This comes as no surprise to many environmentalists, fishermen and tribal leaders, who have long said the plan is a sell-out to the timber industry and will only hasten the salmon's decline. In mid-April, a coalition of environmental and commercial fishing groups filed its first brief in lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The coalition, which will use the internal documents as evidence in the cases, says the agencies broke federal clean water and endangered species laws by endorsing the plan.
Battling over buffer zones
The Forests and Fish plan was initiated by the timber industry as a way to reach consensus over how to save nine stocks of Northwest salmon before the federal government listed the fish as endangered and devised its own action plan. For over three years, the fisheries service and other federal agencies worked with timber industry representatives, state officials, tribal representatives and environmentalists, but agreement proved impossible. The plan was completed only after environmentalists dropped out of the negotiations. They claimed that the committee wasn't resolving arguments over streamside buffers, cutting on steep slopes and funding for monitoring.
The final agreement was released just one month before the federal government listed the endangered salmon. It restricts logging on excessively steep slopes and requires that in the next 15 years, timber companies repair deteriorating logging roads that wash sediment into salmon streams. It also calls for an increase in forested buffers along fish-bearing streams, from a minimum 25 feet under existing rules, to up to 100 feet.
But that's not wide enough, say 28 independent scientists. A few months after the plan was released, the group wrote Gov. Locke that salmon streams need forested buffers of 200 to 250 feet * more than double the plan's recommendations. Their assessment was confirmed by another independent scientific review released a few months later, but both appraisals were ignored. Critics are also concerned that beyond the buffer zones, clear-cutting is allowed and upper tributary streams receive no protection.
Becky Kelley of the Washington Environmental Council says the plan sets a dangerous precedent for endangered species recovery on private lands throughout the West. With the approval of the National Marine Fisheries Service, timber companies are now exempt from stricter protection measures required under the Endangered Species Act for the next 50 years. Although monitoring is required, if new research finds that additional protection is needed, it may be challenging to implement it: All parties, including the timber industry, must agree on any revisions.
"You can, maybe, play these kinds of games when species are healthy," says Kelley, whose group is a co-plaintiff in the cases against EPA and NMFS, "but not when a species is nearing extinction."
Bob Turner, of the National Marine Fisheries Service, brushes off criticism from Kelley and fisheries scientists like Pollock. They are used to administering the Endangered Species Act on federal lands, says Turner, and don't understand that Forests and Fish had to pass muster with private timberland owners.
Bob Bilby, Turner's chief science advisor, admits that nothing like the plan has ever been attempted before. "We don't have a good idea whether or not it's going to fully protect the ecological functions of the streams," he said in October 1999. But, he added, the agreement is progress. "We do know it will improve conditions over where we are currently."
Bilby's involvement in the process does little to inspire confidence in critics of the plan. They point out that he worked for Weyerhaeuser before joining the fisheries service, and returned to the company after Forests and Fish was completed.
Patti Goldman, an attorney with Earthjustice, the group filing the lawsuits, views Bilby's argument as a central problem with the government's approach.
"The National Marine Fisheries Service is willing to settle for some improvement over the status quo," she says. "Instead, they should be asking 'Will the fish survive and recover?' That's what the Endangered Species Act mandates. That's what the agencies are supposed to ensure will happen - and they haven't."
Tim McNulty writes about forests, fish and other wild things from his home on Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Patti Goldman of Earthjustice, 206/343-7340 ext. 32, www.earthjustice.org;
- Bob Turner of NMFS, 360/753-5825, www.nmfs.noaa.gov.
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Tim McNulty