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Long-sought forest rules OK'd

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- Regulations affect private and public landowners throughout state

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June 6, 2006

By JOHN DODGE, The Olympian

Forests and Fish Act update

  • About 800 miles of streams once blocked by road culverts are restored for fish use.
    Forests and Fish Act update
  • Fish habitat streams in Western Washington have buffer zones ranging from 90 to 200 feet on both sides, with no harvesting within the first 50 feet.
  • More than 20,300 miles of logging roads are covered by road maintenance and abandonment plans.
  • Family forestland owners have protected 631 acres of streamside habitat, receiving compensation from the state Department of Natural Resources in exchange for leaving the timber standing for 50 years.

    Source: Washington state Department of Natural Resources

The federal government agreed Monday that state timber harvest rules designed to protect water quality and fish are strong enough to protect some 70 species of fish and amphibians, including endangered salmon species.

It means private and public landowners of 9.3 million acres statewide can harvest and manage their lands without fear that federal agencies will penalize them for harming or killing aquatic species protected now or in the future by the federal Endangered Species Act.

The signing of the 50-year habitat conservation plan was hailed by federal and state officials and the timber industry as a hallmark moment, signaling certainty for the timber industry and protection for natural resources historically impacted by logging.

Meanwhile, treaty tribes and conservation groups questioned whether the habitat plan and forestry rules it is based on go far enough to protect salmon and water quality.

The ceremony Monday marked the culmination of a nearly 10-year, contentious effort to beef up timber harvest rules and maintain a viable timber industry in the state.

"Make no mistake about it - this is a great day in the history of the state of Washington," Gov. Chris Gregoire said at a gathering of more than 100 stakeholders at the family tree farm of Ken and Bonnie Miller. The farm is on the shores of Deep Lake next to Millersylvania State Park.

The habitat conservation plan covers more land and more critters than any other approved in the nation, said Bob Lohn, regional director of NOAA Fisheries Services.

The plan grew out of the Forests and Fish Act approved by the 1999 state Legislature and 2001 forest practices rules adopted by the state Board of Natural Resources and enforced by the state Department of Natural Resources.

The Forests and Fish Act requires wider buffers along 60,000 miles of streams, puts timberland owners on a timetable to abandon and repair old logging roads that leak sediment into salmon-bearing streams and limits logging on unstable slopes.

Before the Forests and Fish Act was adopted, logging regulations were in a state of constant change and uncertainty, noted Michael Mosman, vice president of resources for Port Blakely Tree Farms. The Tumwater-based company and others in the timber industry started to balk at making new investments in this state as more and more forest species were listed under the ESA.

The federal agencies' approval of the habitat conservation plan recognizes that practicing forestry under the state's forest practices rules meets ESA standards for aquatic species.

"Now we know there won't be surprises - and that's a big deal for us," Mosman said.

Adaptive management

At the same time, supporters and critics of the habitat plan alike acknowledged that monitoring and scientific studies could lead to changes in the forestry rules, something called adaptive management.

Changes could lead to more, or less, habitat protection or timber harvesting.

"Adaptive management is a path meant to take us where the science leads," said state Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma. "This, too, is a path not often traveled because it is daring and difficult."

Treaty tribes are counting on adaptive management to deal with two areas where they insist the habitat conservation plan falls short - giving landowners of less than 20 acres relief from streamside buffers and changes in stream flow, and water temperature caused by global warming.

"As much as 35 percent of the salmon-bearing streams subject to harvest in some watersheds could be affected by the (small forestland owner) exemption," Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission chairman Billy Frank Jr. said in a May 30 comment addressed to Gregoire and others. "The tribes believe that the small landowner exemption will result in an unacceptable loss of fish."

The small landowner exemption was included as part of the political give-and-take leading up to passage of the 1999 state law.

Environmental groups walked away from the negotiations that started in 1997 and resulted in the Forests and Fish Act, saying it wasn't strong enough to protect fish and water quality.

"But we're back at the table, trying to make adaptive management work," said Miguel Perez-Gibson, a lobbyist for the conservation caucus.

Ken Miller, who hosted the signing ceremony at his 40-acre tree farm, said many family forestland owners say the new rules are complex and hard to interpret, especially for timberland owners who don't have the scientists on the payroll that big timber companies have.

"Personally, I'm fearful that I will unintentionally break some of the rules," he said.

Web Links: Final Forest Practices Habitat Conservation Plan for Washington state (.pdf files)

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John Dodge is a senior reporter and Sunday columnist for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5444 or jdodge@theolympian.com.