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
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.