Timber's bad boy comes to the table

  • Plum Creek Cascades HCP Project Area

    Diane Sylvain
  • Lorin Hicks, biologist for Plum Creek, listens for spotted owls

    Kathie Durbin

Note: this article is part of a suite of feature articles in this issue about the Endangered Species Act and Habitat Protection Plans.

ROSLYN, Wash. - Lorin Hicks climbs the steep, muddy slope in long strides, stopping several hundred feet uphill of a goshawk nest. The agitated female screeches annoyance and lifts off the towering mound of sticks to perch on a nearby snag. But Hicks, following the bird's trajectory with binoculars, is obviously pleased.

The bird's presence tells him that in this situation, "we did the right thing," says the staff biologist for Plum Creek Timber Co., which owns this land. "We know this pair is at least four years old. They've come back and successfully reproduced both years since the harvest."

On this rainy May afternoon deep in the central Washington Cascades, Hicks is showing off the best of his employer's handiwork. When loggers moved into this 75-acre parcel near the popular Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Hicks says, they left a five-acre buffer around the nest to protect the goshawk, a sensitive species in the interior Northwest. Then they logged the surrounding area selectively, so that the eye would not be jarred by an ugly clear-cut. The harvest also left enough trees to provide cover for northern spotted owls.

But not far away, not even thick rainclouds can obscure the worst of Plum Creek's legacy: A corridor of ugly clear-cuts along Snoqualmie Pass on Interstate 90, some a full mile square, that prompted a former Washington congressman to tag Plum Creek the "Darth Vader" of the timber industry. So extensive was the logging on intermingled private and public lands along the pass during the 1980s that some conservation biologists believe it effectively cut the Washington Cascades into two distinct provinces, presenting a barrier to the dispersal of spotted owls and other wide-ranging species.

Hicks says he would like to forget the 1980s. Plum Creek began changing its timber management philosophy in 1990, he says, when it freed itself from its corporate parent, Burlington Northern Railroad, and became an independent limited partnership, answerable only to its 35,000 stockholders. Since then, he says, Plum Creek has worked to become environmentally responsible.

It's an uphill battle. The brutal logging scars along Snoqualmie Pass, and on nearly 1 million acres of Plum Creek land in Montana's Swan Valley, will not heal for many decades. In the meantime, Plum Creek has placed itself in the vanguard of corporate landowners taking advantage of the Clinton administration's love affair with Habitat Conservation Plans. These negotiated deals with the federal government give the landowner permission to destroy individuals of an endangered species or their habitat in exchange for setting aside and/or managing other lands for the species.

Plum Creek's plan, approved in 1996 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is one of the largest and most ambitious in the Northwest's spotted owl region. The Seattle timber company invested two years and $2 million in the plan, which will guide management of 169,177 acres of Plum Creek land that's intermingled with national forest and other private land - 418,690 acres in all - in a checkerboard pattern along Interstate 90.

It promises to address the habitat needs of 285 known species of fish and wildlife. But it focuses on spotted owls, goshawks, bull trout, grizzlies and wolves, all either listed under the Endangered Species Act or under consideration for listing.

As a reward, the timber giant received "incidental take permits' for owls, marbled murrelets, wolves and grizzlies, allowing the company to destroy their habitat in the normal course of logging. The 50-year plan, which under certain conditions can be renewed for another 50 years, allows plenty of logging. Much of the land will be clear-cut. Hicks won't say how much will look like the area around the goshawk nest.

Many conservationists question whether the Plum Creek plan is all that good for endangered species, since it allows the company to cut most of its remaining old forests in the early years. And it relies on adjacent national forests to provide most of the old-growth nesting and roosting habitat owls require. Even those who find things to praise in the HCP, such as wider streamside buffers where no logging can occur, stop short of embracing the whole plan.

"The certainty is on the side of Plum Creek; the risk is on the side of wildlife," said Charlie Raines, a Seattle Sierra Club staff member who is trying to arrange land trades beneficial to wildlife in the checkerboarded Snoqualmie Pass corridor.

Still, Bill Vogel, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who worked most closely with Hicks on the Plum Creek plan, regards it as the model that other corporate timberland owners in the owl region should emulate. The science behind the plan is so extensive and solid, he says, that "if conservationists were to challenge Plum Creek and it were to fail, that would be the end of HCPs."

A sound business decision

Hicks is candid about why Plum Creek decided to go the HCP route: Without the plan, logging was a nightmare. The I-90 checkerboard lands harbor some of the densest populations of spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest, and federal rules protecting owls here are more stringent than in other places.

Before the company and government adopted the HCP, Plum Creek was subject to a provision of the Endangered Species Act known as the 4-D Rule. That required its loggers to work around a maze of shifting owl circles, each covering 2,523 acres, to avoid committing illegal "take" or killing of actual owls.

At one point, more than three-quarters of Plum Creek's acreage was tied up in 108 circles, within which logging was barred or severely limited. The foregone timber within each circle was worth about $25 million; what's more, the company was spending $500,000 each summer on owl surveys to track shifting nest sites. The restrictions forced the company to harvest more heavily outside the circles in order to meet its corporate bottom line.

"It was awful," Hicks says. "We had to constantly change the circles as owls moved and add new circles as we found new owls. And we knew we were supporting a paradigm that biologists didn't feel was adequate. Owls don't necessarily use circles."

The HCP erases those circles, but sets up other management criteria. Plum Creek will protect habitat around owl and goshawk sites, log more lightly in areas where owls disperse across the forest, and leave 200-foot buffers along fish-bearing streams and 100-foot buffers along most other year-round streams, a far more protective standard than Washington's Forest Practices Act requires. The company will also close logging roads and protect roadside trees to offer more inviting habitat for grizzlies, which have been sighted in the area.

Plum Creek won't touch its remnant stands of true old growth - only about 2,500 acres - but after 10 years will have cut more than 90 percent of its older forests that are used by owls for nesting, roosting and forage. Today, 20 percent of its land is older forest; by 2025, only 8 percent will be. That means the plan is not risk-free for owls.

"This is a take mitigation plan, not an owl recovery plan," Hicks says. "What we project is that the number of owl sites could drop from 86 to 80. That doesn't seem to be significant in a landscape sense."

Like all recently adopted mega-HCPs, Plum Creek's plan contains controversial "no surprises' and "safe harbor" provisions that shield the company from additional habitat protection requirements for up to a century. Kieran Suckling of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Ariz., which has taken the Clinton administration to court over "no surprises' and "safe harbors," worries that attaching these guarantees will undermine the recovery of threatened and endangered species.

"As these plans become bigger and bigger, they supersede recovery planning," he says. "There are no recovery plans for 70 percent of all endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Service says it has no money to do recovery plans, but it has found money to do more than 400 HCPs."

Suckling goes further: "(Interior Secretary Bruce) Babbitt has created a shadow ESA. He's saving the ESA by killing endangered species. The only place the ESA exists today is in the federal courts."

Another objection comes from Brian Vincent of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance in Bellingham, Wash., who questions whether Plum Creek can do what its plan says it will do. "(The plan) provides for taking more owls up front with the expectation that more habitat will grow in the future, (but) we're not certain Plum Creek has the will or the track record to provide new habitat."

Vincent also worries that the "no surprises" clause will make changing the plan nearly impossible, even in the event of a natural disaster such as a flood or fire, or a new round of unanticipated logging on adjacent public lands.

Hicks is aware of these objections, but he says Plum Creek would not have made the deal without the predictability "no surprises" offers.

"This is a negotiated document," he says. "All along we were also looking at the economic bottom line. At some point we had to say, 'No, we've given up the ranch.' This is where an HCP becomes not only a biological plan but a business plan."

Regulatory certainty, according to Hicks, is worth a lot. "An acre of old growth right now is worth $30,000," he says. The stability provided by the HCP not only gives Plum Creek investors more confidence, but it strengthens the company's position as it negotiates land exchanges with the Forest Service. In the past, the agency could offer lowball proposals on the argument that spotted owl regulations had rendered Plum Creek's lands "ecologically valuable, but economically damaged." Now, "the HCP acres become fully valued because they can be logged," says Hicks.

Hicks notes that the plan suspends "no surprises" in two instances: The plan can be changed if Plum Creek's analysis of 20 watersheds that lie within the HCP reveals the need for more streamside protection, or if monitoring shows a drop of 20 percent or more in owl numbers.

"Safe harbors," he says, works to the benefit of wildlife by allowing the company to negotiate an extension of the HCP if wildlife habitat is in good shape at the end of 50 years. "If we didn't have the opportunity to re-up, it would create the perverse incentive to basically provide only what's required and zero out all extra habitat by the end of the permit period," Hicks says.

Plum Creek will work closely with the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Wenatchee national forests to coordinate management of their intermingled land. Hicks concedes that if owls survive and flourish along the I-90 corridor, it will be largely because President Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan protects their critical old-growth nesting habitat on public lands. Plum Creek's role will be to supplement that effort by logging lightly in surrounding private forests where owls roost and forage for prey.

Says Hicks, "We're in the ironic position of being a major corporate timberland owner who has a major vested interest in seeing the president's plan succeed."

Writer Kathie Durbin is based in Portland, Oregon.

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