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Environmentalists, tribes oppose state's forest-management plan

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Seattle P-I, May 26, 2005; Today, seven years after their self-imposed deadline, state officials finally have gotten around to filling in crucial blanks left in the forest-management strategy.

Seattle P-I

Thursday, May 26, 2005

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/225916_forests26.html

By ROBERT McCLURE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

Officials say critics shouldn't worry

Forests next to rivers nurture salmon runs. They keep rivers cool, feed bugs near the bottom of the food chain, hold stream banks in place, filter out dirt that clouds water and smothers streambeds.

Making those streamside forests healthy is a cornerstone of a Washington Department of Natural Resources habitat conservation plan approved by the federal government in 1997.

Today, seven years after their self-imposed deadline, state officials finally have gotten around to filling in crucial blanks left in the forest-management strategy.

In recent weeks, even as Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a bill to boost restoration of streamside forests, a chorus of protest has risen from environmentalists and tribes over the now-emerging state strategy.

Critics say it looks a lot more like a plan to log the heck out of streamside forests located across 1.1 million acres in Western Washington.

"Lots of acreage and lots of salmon are going to be harmed," predicted Keith Wyman, a fish biologist with the Skagit River System Cooperative, the natural resources agency that works on behalf of two tribes in the Skagit River area.

"Resources are harmed and there is no way for the public to say, 'That's not the deal.' "

Wyman's analysis of state plans indicates that up to three-quarters of the trees could be carted away as timber in some places. "Those numbers scare the hell out of me," he said.

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Also expressing concern are at least two other tribes, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, the Olympic Coast Alliance and the Washington Environmental Council, which represents more than 50 environmental groups statewide.

"We're not trying to take some sort of dogmatic stand, like 'no logging,' " said Becky Kelley of the Washington Environmental Council. "They said they were going to do it one way. If they're going to do it another way, they need to explain and prove that that's the way they should do it."

State officials say critics shouldn't worry. They plan to reach those maximum tree-cutting numbers only in some instances.

The state's strategy basically boils down to this: By cutting trees out of unnaturally overgrown riversides, the state allow the remaining trees to grow larger and encourage more-natural forest conditions.

"We're going to be leaving a good number of trees," said Tami Riepe, who oversees the plan for DNR. "There is no objective to thin as heavy as we can."

Although federal officials have not formally approved the new strategy, DNR foresters are being trained this week about how to apply it.

The 1997 plan represents a deal between federal wildlife agencies and DNR, which is headed by elected Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland. In return for taking steps to help salmon, spotted owls and other animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, the state won federal assurances it would not be prosecuted if its timber-cutting hurts those animals.

Criticism of the state's riverside thinning proposal comes as federal officials prepare to approve a similar but much larger deal awarding much the same assurance to private timber-cutting.

That pending plan -- expected to receive federal approval this summer -- would cover 9.1 million acres, making it the largest such habitat plan in the West. It is supported by Gregoire and Sutherland.

The lengthy terms of these deals -- the private one would go for 50 years, while the state plan's 70-year term could be extended to 100 -- are a big factor to critics.

"The problem is that there is no recourse," Wyman said. "A lot more trees will be taken out than agreed, and it will go on for years."

Standing recently on state land east of Mount Vernon where a clearcut reached clear up the ridge behind him, Wyman's colleague Larry Wasserman looked over a small stream that logging crews had denuded of trees. It was judged too small to deserve a tree buffer.

"The water's going to be warmer. The sediment's going to go through a lot quicker," Wasserman said.

Just steps away, at a larger stream that was left untouched because the state's tree-cutting plan wasn't done yet, a jay called and songbirds tweeted in a dark patch of forest. Under the new plan, many of those trees could be harvested.

In addition to keeping streams cool, holding stream banks in place and filtering out sediment, trees near streams serve an important purpose in a surprising way -- by falling down.

Blown down by wind or uprooted by floodwaters, trees that land in streams create logjams of varying sizes that lead to the formation of pools where salmon like to hang out.

The state promised to finish the plans now being considered by 1998. When DNR didn't get the work done on time, officials told the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service they would simply not log in the streamside areas.

DNR spokeswoman Patty Henson said staffing issues caused by "budget pressures and other policy priorities" were partially to blame for the delays.

The effort was complicated by a lack of good scientific studies showing how to manage streamside forests, said Matt Longenbaugh, a biologist at the federal fisheries service.

"For a lot of reasons I'm still trying to figure out, this was a lot more complex and complicated than we thought it would be at the time," Longenbaugh said.

The basic idea in the thinning strategy is to create conditions closer to natural old-growth forests. That means big trees, but also some spacing between them so that light can penetrate to the forest floor. There, underbrush develops. It can be used by a number of wildlife species.

Also, old trees that topple decay on the forest floor, forming a low rung on a food chain that feeds animals on land and in the water. And mice and other rodents eaten by spotted owls and other birds show up. Standing dead trees -- snags -- attracts bugs, which in turn attract woodpeckers.

The plan calls for crews to cut and leave on the forest floor five trees per acre to help the forest develop the characteristics of old-growth sooner.

But critics point out that DNR's plan comes on the heels of a decision last year to boost logging on state lands by about 30 percent. Proceeds to go to help trusts that benefit schools, colleges and county governments. The state says that decision has nothing to do with its strategy.

Wyman's analysis of the state's strategy focused on how many trees would be taken out of the streamside areas. Those are trees that won't land in streams and help fish.

In one of the four scenarios outlined by state officials, a 40-year-old Douglas fir stand holding 324 trees per acre would, if left alone, be winnowed to 175 trees over 70 years. The others die, falling to nourish the forest floor or slide into a nearby stream to help fish.

However, if that same stand is thinned under the state strategy, only 108 trees would remain after 70 years -- a 38 percent decrease over the uncut stand. And if the stand is thinned twice, as the strategy permits, only 70 trees would be left, the state's strategy shows. That's a decrease of some 60 percent.

Wyman's analysis, focusing on how many trees are actually left on the ground or in the streams, shows reductions up to three-quarters.

The original state plan said no trees would be taken out in the first 25 feet on either side of larger streams. That will remain the same.

The 1997 plan says that the next 75 feet will be a "minimal-harvest" zone allowing only "ecological restoration and selective removal of single trees." Outside that was a zone of variable width, but generally around 50 feet, where some additional logging would be allowed. The new strategy lumps everything outside the 25-foot no-cut zone into a single zone.

RELATED SPECIAL REPORT

Read A License to Kill, a three-part series investigating shortcomings in the nation's habitat conservation program.

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