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DNR official cut deal with timber on owls

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Seattle P-I, November 9, 2005; When a state board sits down today to decide how to best protect spotted owls, the man in charge will be a Department of Natural Resources official who privately huddled with timber industry executives and promised to soften proposed regulations.

But lands boss intervenes, orders all options discussed

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/247630_spottedowl09.html

SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

By ROBERT MCCLURE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

When a state board sits down today to decide how to best protect spotted owls, the man in charge will be a Department of Natural Resources official who privately huddled with timber industry executives and promised to soften proposed regulations.

An internal timber industry memorandum obtained by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer outlines how Pat McElroy, chairman of the Forest Practices Board, agreed to eliminate a key DNR staff recommendation to be considered today. View the memo that is the subject of this story. (PDF, 325K)

The memo also suggests that McElroy had planned to alter his agency's recommendations without telling others involved in the talks, such as environmentalists and tribal leaders.

That didn't happen, according to the memo, because Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland feared that environmentalists would find out and sue. Sutherland received heavy backing from timber interests in both his campaigns for lands commissioner.

"This just shows how stacked the deck is against a credible public process," said Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center, which represents environmentalists in timber lawsuits. "We've been working for two years to convince them what they need to do to protect owls. This is what the DNR staff came up with, and it almost went into the trash."

Goldman questioned whether McElroy is sufficiently neutral to run today's meeting of the Forest Practices Board, which regulates the industry.

"We're going to make a huge stink," Goldman said.

Repeated attempts Tuesday to contact McElroy for comment were unsuccessful. But his boss -- Sutherland -- and a department spokeswoman stressed that ultimately no information was withheld from anyone. Sutherland ordered McElroy to distribute the staff's draft recommendations unaltered, they said.

The timber industry's "understanding of what Pat said to them in a discussion about an issue that is very sensitive and very important to them -- I can't comment on their understanding of that," DNR spokeswoman Patty Henson said.

The one-page memorandum, dated Nov. 3, is from three staff members at the Washington Forest Protection Association, the lobby for big timber companies. It was sent to the group's board of trustees.

The memo says McElroy, in his meeting with timber executives late last Wednesday, "agreed that the (draft DNR) document would be substantially revised. This was important because they plan to brief the environmental groups today. We agreed not to distribute the draft."

According to the memo, McElroy told the lobbyists the next day that Sutherland "did not want to risk the environmental litigants discovering that the recommendations had been modified to appease the industry, and that (DNR) would not be amending the document."

The Forest Practices Board is reconsidering rules adopted nine years ago governing private forestland protections of the owl, whose decline sparked massive controversy in the early 1990s.

The state rules were adopted not long after completion of a federal plan that sought to preserve the owl, mostly on federal land. The idea was that timber companies would come up with plans to supplement the federal effort on parts of their land. Few did, though.

The state did establish 10 "special emphasis areas" for preserving owls. The rules restrict how much owl habitat can be destroyed by timber operations right around known owl nests. But the 1996 rules allow cutting of trees that could serve as a home for the owls, so long as none of them are present when the trees are cut.

The key concern of the timber lobby, according to the memo, is DNR staff members' recommendation to make it difficult to harvest trees in forests suitable for the owls anywhere inside those "special emphasis" areas. Often, forests that support the owls contain big, old trees worth lots of money as timber.

Environmentalists supported the original staff recommendation, saying it would affect only about 3 percent of the lands in the "special emphasis" areas.

Since 1996, about 7 percent of private timberlands in Washington have been logged, a recent state report showed, including about 12 percent of owl-friendly forests on private land. Meanwhile, studies show the owl's population slipping much more quickly in Washington than expected by architects of the federal plan -- about 7 percent per year.

The Forest Practices Board's discussion today in Olympia will revolve around what further the state should do to help the bird.

The decision is complicated by the fact that factors other than cutting trees are thought to be harming the owl, including West Nile virus and competing species.

In an interview, Sutherland said McElroy's marching orders were to try to negotiate a package of new rules that comes as close as possible to satisfying everyone. He said he told McElroy to present all the options "regardless of the severity" to the timber industry.

The 12-member Forest Practices Board consists of seven gubernatorial appointees and five agency heads or their designees.

Board member Alan Soicher, who has been affiliated with environmental groups, said he was troubled by the industry memo.

"The Forest Practices Board is an independent state agency, and it's not DNR's role to make deals about what comes before the board," he said.

Spokeswoman Cindy Mitchell at the Washington Forest Protection Association declined to comment on the memo, calling it "a confidential internal document."


P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or robertmcclure@seattlepi.com.

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