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.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears with a sidebar, "Cows versus condos -- Northwest style."

High Country News Classifieds
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!