Devil's bargain

As owl and salmon protections fizzle, a desperate attempt is made to hammer out a statewide forest conservation plan.

THE HARD-WON protections for spotted owls have proven good only on paper, and nobody expects the US Endangered Species Act to do any better at protecting salmon, trout, or any other threatened critter. New rules pushed by the Clinton administration allow so many exemptions from the law that even the sacrosanct owl may be "taken" on nearly 2 million acres of forestland in Washington alone. But lacking support in Congress and the Legislature and nearly out of legal ammunition, environmentalists have returned to the table to negotiate further with timber interests.

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Greens, government, and timber have gathered this week in Olympia for a state Timber, Fish, and Wildlife Forum to hash out a scheme that would exempt landowners from future endangered-species regulations throughout the state. Curt Smitch, Gov. Locke's top aide on environmental policy, says the plan would in essence grant timber companies guaranteed exemptions from future steelhead, salmon, and trout protections if they provide "voluntary" stream buffers.

This "No Surprises" rule is a controversial concession the Clinton administration originally offered in 1994, when the Endangered Species Act faced tenuous reauthorization by the first Republican Congress in 40 years. According to a letter from US Fish and Wildlife director Mollie Beattie to pro-timber Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, the White House intended to provide landowners "significant relief" from rigid rules such as one forbidding logging within 35 acres of a spotted-owl nest. "No Surprises" sweetens an old and previously unused clause of the Endangered Species Act that awards private landowners special case exemptions, like "take" permits for owls, in return for a negotiated long-term habitat conservation plan (HCP) designed to protect sensitive habitat.

The HCP concept has been sold as a win-win for conservation and the timber industry. "We're working with private landowners, developers, citizen groups, and local government officials to implement the Endangered Species Act in a way which protects threatened and endangered wildlife while preserving the economic viability of communities," Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt explained last year while announcing a 1.6 million-acre HCP for Washington state forests, which was the largest single plan at the time.

Through the Timber, Fish, and Wildlife Forum, the state is trying to head off clumsy federal action, including steelhead listings in almost every Washington watershed, with an 11-million-acre "HCP-like" conservation plan of its own. (The state plan would not effect owl rules.) Current habitat protections require 25- to 100-foot riverbank "riparian management zones" depending on the size of the stream. The proposed statewide plan would order 150-foot ("tree-length") protection zones along all streams, but exempt timber companies should broader buffers prove necessary to actually protect endangered fish.

"Of course, we'd love to see all the forests be parks," says Smitch, "but the fact is that they're going to keep cutting trees.... The idea is to do a better job than current rules [allow]."

THIS STRATEGY IMPLICITLY concedes that current endangered-species safeguards don't work. Even spotted owls are dying within their federally protected "circles." Nests are slowly being abandoned, and timber companies are eagerly sweeping in to harvest the previously protected property, thus taking even more habitat from the remaining owls. Given the reality that owl circles are slowly being eliminated under current endangered species protections, it's not difficult for timber companies like Weyerhaeuser to claim that HCPs provide "net benefits for fish and wildlife as compared to continued forest management without the HCP (the 'no action' alternative)," as the company reports in one HCP request. HCPs for owl land normally grant unprecedented "incidental take" permits for owls in return for managed "migration corridors" of thinned new-growth trees, which usher owls off private property and into adjacent federal forests. "Credit it to a collaborative approach," says Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizable.

For environmentalists, HCPs are a devil's bargain. Larger riparian zones and migration corridors may help otherwise doomed owls and salmon, but what unexpected concessions lurk behind "no surprises" guarantees?

Timber, Fish, and Wildlife Forum members have met since 1996 to hammer out the state agreement, and although both sides want to avoid triggering the endangered species protections by August, fundamental questions remain: Environmentalists want periodic impact reviews, but timber companies say reviews are the exact opposite of what "no surprises" means. Timber companies want to thin out the "tree-length" buffers, but environmentalists say that's the exact opposite of what a buffer means. "The hope is that you gain some protection of resources," explains the Washington Environmental Council's Toby Thaler, who represents the group at Timber Fish and Wildlife Forum negotiations. "The problem is that we're giving away our ability to deal with problems in the future."

Related Links:

Info. on Oregon and the Spotted Owl

The US Fish and Wildlife Service

Spotted Owl pictures and information

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