Seattle P-I: "Weyerhaeuser got to edit U.S. letter on logging, owls"
By ROBERT MCCLURE
[Editor's Note: This article has been changed. A quote by Audubon attorney John Arum was incorrect in the original version of this article.]
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered a Weyerhaeuser Co. executive the opportunity to edit a letter the agency was sending the timber company regarding "concerns" about Weyerhaeuser logging harming spotted owls.
And an internal Weyerhaeuser memo prepared for a meeting with a Bush administration official shows the company wants to do as little as possible to get environmentalists off its back while still cutting as much timber as possible.
Those two documents emerged at a four-day hearing this week before U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman of Seattle in which the Seattle Audubon Society attacked Weyerhaeuser's alleged transgressions of the Endangered Species Act.
Audubon, calling government regulators too cozy with the timber industry, is asking the judge to halt Weyerhaeuser's logging near spotted owls. It also is asking her to restrict Washington Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland's ability to approve logging on about 50,000 forested acres near where spotted owls have been seen. The land belongs to Weyerhaeuser and others.
Unless the judge steps in to halt the logging before the case can go to a full trial in several years, Audubon attorney John Arum predicted, "The state will issue scores of permits ... and thousands of acres of this habitat will be destroyed."
State and timber industry lawyers disagreed.
An unusual aspect of the case is that the spotted owls specifically at issue are living largely in 50- to 80-year-old industrial forests -- not the "old-growth" forests at the heart of the 1990s timber wars, the ones with which the owls are generally associated.
Because of that, Weyerhaeuser argues, scientific studies cited by Audubon to attack its rate of cutting near them in Southwest Washington is not reliable.
"If 50- to 80-year-old forests are suitable habitat, then we've got way more of that across the state of Washington than we need," argued Weyerhaeuser attorney Elaine Spencer.
Environmentalists' lawyers pointed to a 44 percent loss of owl-friendly forests in Southwest Washington, where Weyerhaeuser dominates the timber landscape, from 1996 to 2004.
Statewide, in eight years the state allowed 17,000 acres of owl-friendly forests to be cut -- a "rate of over 2,000 acres a year," Arum said in closing arguments.
"The state's regulatory program ... recognizes the Endangered Species Act and the obligation that imposes on landowners," Patricia O'Brien, a deputy attorney general who represents Sutherland, countered. Representing the timber industry, Seattle attorney John Hempelmann argued, "The owl is not being ignored. There are huge efforts being made to protect it and speed its recovery." The case centers on four 6,000-acre areas in Southwest Washington where environmentalists contend Weyerhaeuser has violated the species-protection law by taking too much timber in areas used for nesting by spotted owls.
But it represents a broader challenge to the state's entire timber regulation system.
Records from the case show that federal officials suspected at least as early as 1991 that Weyerhaeuser might be violating the Endangered Species Act.
In the mid-1990s, Weyerhaeuser told federal officials it would create a "habitat conservation plan" to guide its Southwest Washington logging.
Because of that, the state did not take special efforts to protect owls there, as it did elsewhere.
But Weyerhaeuser never produced the promised plan.
Since then, scientists have noted the increasing presence of barred owls, which are thought to compete with spotted owls and which made their way from the East in recent decades. They are displacing the spotted owls, it appears.
But loss of suitable habitat for the spotted owls also continued to alarm state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists.
In early 2005, state scientist Paula Swedeen alerted federal wildlife officials of her concerns. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials met with Weyerhaeuser executives in May 2005.
Three months later, a federal supervisor sent Weyerhaeuser's Kevin Godbout a draft of a letter the agency was preparing to send the timber company. Godbout wrote in suggested changes and sent the letter back.
The agency accepted some, but not all, of the changes Godbout proposed.
"We were just trying to identify and clarify what was actually said and agreed to at a meeting that had occurred four months prior," Godbout testified.
Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal said Friday such a practice "would be fairly common when one party of a meeting wants to record the substance in a memo."
Jim Michaels, an official with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service who helped oversee endangered-species policy for Washington, said in an interview Friday that allowing a company such as Weyerhaeuser the opportunity to see an outgoing Fish and Wildlife Service letter in draft form is not unusual if the company is cooperating with the agency.
Agency spokesman Doug Zimmer said, "Remember, we were in a collaborative position, not an adversarial relationship."
More than a year after that episode, with environmentalists threatening to file suit, an internal Weyerhaeuser memo dated October 2006 was prepared to guide company officials in a meeting with Michael Bogert, an adviser to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.
The memo says one of the company's goals was to "defend and defeat any direct litigation while adjusting operations as little as possible to maximize chances of success in litigation."
On the witness stand this week, Godbout said it was "clearly a work in progress subject to a tremendous amount of revision." And, he said, the subject of owls never came up during the meeting with Bogert.
Asked whether it reflected the company's position, Godbout answered: "That's a fair characterization of a goal that we would have." Weyerhaeuser has a policy of protecting the 500 acres of forest thought to be most valuable to the owls around nest sites.
That exceeds state requirements outside the "special emphasis" owl areas. Those rules allow the trees to be cut except during the owls' nesting season.
Environmentalists presented testimony and other evidence that the wide-ranging owls may, in fact, need up to 5,800 acres of suitable habitat to thrive.
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog on the environment at www.datelineearth.com
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