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Avoid date in court by strengthening habitat plan

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Seattle P-I, June 16, 2005; Washington's proposed Habitat Conservation Plan, if approved by the Bush administration, would bless state forest practices rules as adequate to protect not just salmon habitat but also habitat for 55 native fish and amphibians dependent on healthy stream systems.

Seattle P-I

Thursday, June 16, 2005

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/opinion/228624_fish16.html

By CHRIS FRISSELL AND MARY SCURLOCK
GUEST COLUMNISTS

Washington's proposed Habitat Conservation Plan, if approved by the Bush administration, would bless state forest practices rules as adequate to protect not just salmon habitat but also habitat for 55 native fish and amphibians dependent on healthy stream systems.

This single decision could provide valuable legal clarity and insulation from the Endangered Species Act to virtually all of Washington's forest landowners for the next half-century. And, in fact, the plan substantially improves protection for rivers and streams and represents a sincere and hard-fought effort to raise conservation standards on private lands.

But -- and it's a big but -- because the plan fails to address serious erosion threats from neglected "ghost" roads that are a major source of damage to streams and doesn't provide effective protection for streamside forests, it is likely to land in court -- and lose -- unless it is strengthened.

Most scientists agree that better management of private forests is critical for the recovery of declining fish and wildlife species. Biologists also agree that the state's proposal allows too much logging too close to smaller streams, without adequate safeguards against increases in stream temperature and harmful erosion from old roads and management-induced landslides. Such harm to headwater streams, of course, ultimately travels downstream to affect all streams, rivers, and coastal waters.

Nonetheless, policy-makers have rejected alternative policies with stronger protections, and instead promised to modify practices in the future as new information becomes available -- so-called "adaptive management." And so far, research confirming the need for stronger protection is stalled in politicized committees.

Rather than leading to needed changes, scientific information is being sandbagged. If the administration approves the state's plan as currently proposed, it will almost certainly be invalidated in court.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Serious weaknesses in the plan could be resolved and court battles defused by:

1) Putting teeth in adaptive management promises by clearly establishing how new science will drive policy change, starting with research already in hand;

2) Mandating and funding restoration of high-risk "ghost" roads that are major sources of erosion, and strengthen the provisions for all other roads;

3) Adopting continuous, no-cut streamside buffers along wetlands, small headwater streams and associated unstable slopes, refocusing research on testing how and where narrower, thinned, or "patchy" buffers can adequately protect water quality, wildlife and fish.

Essentially, the proposed plan is a grand experiment that places imperiled species and clean water at risk.

Fortunately, there's still time to change the path we're on. While Pacific Rivers Council is committed to working with the government agencies on improving the HCP and its adaptive management program, in the end Pacific Rivers Council believes the laws that protect fish and wildlife need to be enforced.

Chris Frissell, Ph.D., is senior staff scientist in Polson, Mont., and Mary Scurlock, J.D., is senior policy analyst, in Portland, Ore., for Pacific Rivers Council, a non-profit organization that works on science-based river and land conservation in the West.