In the Washington woods, managers face a catch-22

Critics say that by trying to please everyone, new rules could fail fish and wildlife

 


In Washington state, the federal government is close to approving a grand compromise aimed at safeguarding both imperiled fish and timber companies. The proposal has reopened a debate, however, over how to balance the needs of wildlife with the wants of industry.

The so-called "Forests and Fish" plan dates back to 1997, when Washington’s timber industry, environmental groups and Indian tribes sat down with state and federal agencies to rework the state’s logging rules (HCN, 4/23/01: Plan protects foresters, not fish). They were trying to avoid the possibility of a forest shutdown caused by the listing of wild salmon populations under the Endangered Species Act. Logging impacts salmon because it removes trees that might otherwise fall into streams and create fish habitat, and can clog streams with silt.

In 1999, the stakeholders released a report recommending new rules for building roads, spraying herbicides, and logging around sensitive areas on Washington’s 8 million acres of private forestland. The state Legislature accepted the rules and told state forestry officials to roll them into a "habitat conservation plan" (HCP) for approval by the federal government. Habitat conservation plans allow some imperiled animals to be killed in exchange for broad habitat protections that presumably will save the species as a whole (HCN, 11/10/03: San Diego’s Habitat Triage).

The state released a draft habitat plan in December. If the Fisheries office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries) OKs it, the state, and landowners who follow the state’s rules, will be exempt from Endangered Species Act lawsuits for the next 50 years. But as the approval deadline approaches, critics argue that the deal contains an impossible catch-22: It allows state wildlife managers to change the rules to reflect evolving science, but at the same time promises timber companies that they won’t be subject to further land-use restrictions to protect salmon: a policy that Clinton-era Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt dubbed "no surprises."

But no one knows what science may uncover about the needs of wild salmon, says Peter Goldman, executive director of the Washington Forest Law Center, an environmental nonprofit. "There is no such thing as ‘no surprises’ in salmon country, and the HCP has to make that very clear." Some flexibility is built into the rules, in a process called "adaptive management." The plan creates buffers, for example, that protect swaths of land up to 200 feet wide around streams. Environmentalists, and some agency biologists, are convinced that the buffers are barely acceptable, and say that studies will eventually call for tighter rules.

The problem, says Goldman, is that once the plan gets federal approval, the state will have little incentive to follow through with the science needed for adaptive management. The state promised to complete approximately $30 million of studies before 2010, but federal funding for the program ends next year, so the cash-strapped state Legislature will probably have to come up with the money.

Environmentalists want the HCP to set strict regulations from the beginning, for things like logging on steep slopes and around small streams. Convincing the state to change its rules has already proven tricky: Agency scientists have completed two studies since 1999 that show that the Forests and Fish rules need to be stricter, but the Department of Natural Resources has yet to institute any changes.

Supporters of the plan, including the Washington Forest Protection Association, a timber-industry organization, say that the Forests and Fish logging rules are already some of the strictest in the nation. Because they are designed as an HCP, they protect not just salmon, but 49 species of unlisted fish and seven stream amphibians. So they give small, non-salmon streams — home of sculpins, sticklebacks, and mudminnows — much the same protection as larger rivers and creeks.

Environmentalists, tribes and the timber industry are scrambling to submit comments on the habitat plan before a May 12 deadline. NOAA Fisheries is expected to release a final decision sometime this fall.

The author writes from Lilliwaup, Washington, where her family owns a tree farm.