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The Olympian: "Timber deal saves owl habitat"

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March 22, 2006 -- Conservation groups and the state, Department of Natural Resources settled a lawsuit Tuesday that claimed the state agency isn’t doing enough on state forest lands to protected the endangered northern spotted owl.

Conservation groups and the state Department of Natural Resources settled a lawsuit Tuesday that claimed the state agency isn’t doing enough on state forest lands to protected the endangered northern spotted owl.

The out-of-court settlement between the two parties requires the state agency to place off-limits to harvest about 45,000 acres of prime owl habitat on state lands in Western Washington, including some acreage that likely would have been logged during the next 10 years.

The deal, a rare 10-year agreement among environmentalists, the timber industry and state forestland managers, was approved by the state Board of Natural Resources on a 6-0 vote Tuesday.

It was the result of three months of negotiations after King County Superior Court Judge Sharon Armstrong ruled in October 2005 that DNR had failed to do an adequate environmental review of what effect the agency’s 10-year timber harvest plan adopted in September 2004 would have on the imperiled owl.

A coalition of environmental groups, including the Washington Environmental Council and National Audubon Society, had filed the lawsuit challenging DNR’s harvest plans in October 2004.

Owl numbers falling

The owl population is in sharp decline in this state because of a variety of factors, ranging from loss of old-growth owl habitat from logging and wildfires to competition from the more aggressive barred owl.

DNR now must recalculate the volume of timber it expects to harvest in the next 10 years. It was on average nearly 600 million board-feet per year.

The new harvest figure also must factor in a new strategy to protect habitat along rivers and streams, which is part of Armstrong’s order and part of a separate DNR agreement with federal resource agencies in charge of recovering fish species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

“The harvest volume will probably come down some,” said Becky Kelley of the Washington Environmental Council.

The land set aside for owls is less than one-half of one-percent of the Western Washington state forestlands and shouldn’t have a major effect on timber harvest levels, DNR lands steward Bruce Mackey said.

Better to settle

Both parties agreed it was better to settle than slug it out in court.
“Lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming,” Mackey said. “It could take two to four years to resolve the case in the courts.”

The main thing conservation groups wanted — and received — from the settlement is no net loss of owl habitat in the next decade, Kelley said.

In return, the conservation groups agreed not to legally challenge the new timber harvest calculation or any timber sales that comply with the agreement.

“The lawsuit settlement allows DNR to move forward with plans to better manage our trust lands, concentrating on land management versus lengthy legal actions,” said Bob Dick, state manager of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group. “It’s a fair deal.”

Other species

Revenue from timber sales on trust lands provides money for schools, libraries, hospitals and county roads, Dick noted.

“The settlement is important to the 37 vulnerable species of birds, such as northern goshawk, marbled murrelet and white-headed woodpecker, that depend on Washington’s forests,” said Nina Carter, executive director of Audubon Washington, the state field office of the National Audubon Society.

But the northern spotted owl won’t recover from the agreement alone, Kelley said. It needs more habitat protection on federal and private timberlands, too.

The agreement calls on conservation groups and DNR to work together on projects that try out new timber harvest techniques that improve habitat and still yield timber for revenue.

And it calls on the two parties to try to resolve their disputes through talks and mediation, rather than lawsuits.

That’s not to say the conservation groups and DNR will always see eye to eye, Kelley said.

“But we’ve planted the seeds for a new relationship.”

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John Dodge is a senior reporter and Sunday columnist for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5444 or jdodge@theolympian.com.