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"Shuttle diplomacy" defended

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The Seattle Times, November 10, 2005; Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland dismissed accusations Wednesday that the man he asked to oversee state and private forestlands tried to secretly kill spotted-owl habitat protections the timber industry didn't like.

The Seattle Times

Thursday, November 10, 2005 - 12:00 AM

By Craig Welch
Seattle Times staff reporter

Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland dismissed accusations Wednesday that the man he asked to oversee state and private forestlands tried to secretly kill spotted-owl habitat protections the timber industry didn't like.

Sutherland acknowledged Pat McElroy, resource director for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), met privately with timber officials last week. But he said it was part of a larger attempt at "shuttle diplomacy" between warring environmentalists and timber companies over new forestry rules.

"I don't know exactly what Pat said [at the meeting]," Sutherland said. "But I do know this: ... Pat doesn't cut deals."

At issue was an internal memo from a timber-industry lobbying group to its own board.

Environmentalists interpreted it to say McElroy had agreed to change recommendations from DNR staff to give the timber industry what it wanted.

Peter Goldman, an environmental attorney who specializes in forest issues, said the memo was evidence that McElroy was playing favorites and was willing to agree to industry requests while keeping the public and environmentalists in the dark.

"It undermines the whole process put forth by the agency," Goldman said outside a meeting of the state Forest Practices Board on Wednesday, the group that ultimately oversees forest policy. McElroy chairs the board.

Heath Packard, policy director for the environmental group Audubon Washington, agreed. Several members of the Forest Practices Board called those charges "insulting" and "offensive." McElroy said the industry memo mischaracterized his role.

The Forest Practices Board asked him to negotiate independently with environmentalists and the timber industry, who have a long history of antagonism over management of spotted owls on state and private land. So McElroy has been meeting privately with representatives of both sides in hopes of negotiating new protections for the owl, whose numbers have declined 7 percent a year in Washington since 1985. The results of those negotiations go to the Forest Practices Board for a vote.

The dispute centered on his meeting last week with lobbyists for the Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA), which represents the state's largest timber companies.

There, McElroy presented 14 ideas from his staff to help owls, including one that would expand habitat protections and make it more likely that logging in some areas would require more-extensive environmental review. State documents show suitable owl habitat has dropped 16 percent on state and private land since 1996 because of logging.

Cindy Mitchell, communications director for the WFPA, declined to comment on her group's memo. But she said her organization objected to the new habitat rules in part because existing ones had taken years to craft.

Regardless, McElroy told the timber lobbyists the habitat-protection proposal would be eliminated, according to the memo and McElroy. But McElroy denied the memo's claim that it was because he was bending to the industry's will. "I'm not in charge of how they [timber lobbyists] interpret their meetings," McElroy said.

He said he had met with state Fish and Wildlife Department officials before the timber group, and Fish and Wildlife staff also had issues with the habitat changes: "It became clear to us that it would not be viable," McElroy said.

So by the time he got to the timber group, he said, it was clear the proposal was dead.

McElroy also said he gave the same set of recommendations a few days later to the environmentalists, including the habitat-protection plan.

Either way, Elliot Marks, the governor's top adviser on natural resources , said that he thought the board was making progress and that the accusations were unfair. Changing proposals during negotiations is part of the process, he said.

But Nina Carter, director of Audubon Washington, said that while she'll still work with McElroy and the timber industry, "I'll be much more cautious and not as trusting as in the past."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company