State Asks U.S. to OK Planby Lisa Stiffler & Robert McClure
State asks U.S. to OK plan protecting timber industry against legal action
OLYMPIA -- Citing a controversial plan to tighten logging rules to help salmon, state officials asked the federal government yesterday to give Washington's timber industry 50 years of protection against Endangered Species Act prosecutions and lawsuits.
Federal officials, proclaiming themselves "delighted," said approval is virtually assured once the public is given 90 days to weigh in on the plan, which covers about 60,000 miles of streams branching out across 9.1 million acres -- more than one-fifth of the state.
The plan obligates timber companies to leave buffers of uncut trees along some streams, fix roads that bleed dirt into rivers, restrict timber-cutting on steep hillsides in danger of landslides and take other steps to keep rivers clean and cold.
But the scientific basis for the so-called Forest & Fish Plan was ridiculed by independent scientists after it was embraced by the Legislature in 1999.
Environmentalists also protested but now say they're working to improve the plan.
Gov. Christine Gregoire and state Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, who sent the plan to the federal government in a ceremony here yesterday, insist they will tighten logging rules if research shows that that is needed to protect salmon.
"Our streams, our fisheries and our wildlife get much greater protection," Gregoire said. "At the same time, an important segment of our economy can continue operating with some certainty. ... It is a great example of all sides benefiting from a collaborative approach."
The paperwork signed by the governor and the lands commissioner requests that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service approve a "habitat-conservation plan."
The plans offer landowners legal protection against Endangered Species Act prosecutions by the federal government in exchange for taking actions that minimize harm to the species and try to make up for any damage done.
Habitat-conservation plans provoked controversy when the Clinton administration began promoting their use in the mid-1990s. The Forest & Fish Plan would represent the second-largest such plan in the country. Nine conservation plans currently cover more than 2.4 million acres in this state.
Bob Lohn, the fisheries service's regional administrator, praised the pact.
"Nothing is more delightful than to come across the results of this process, which comes to us with not only a good scientific foundation but also social support," Lohn said.
Environmentalists walked out of the talks leading to adoption of the plan, saying the process was weighted too heavily in favor of the timber industry. They filed suit after its adoption, but they have since decided to work to make the plan better.
"We're very concerned about the economics and the politics trumping science," said attorney Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center, which represents environmentalists in battles with the timber industry. "We're concerned that this thing has a glass ceiling over it."
He explained environmentalists' re-engagement in the process this way: "If I told you you had to live in a house for 50 years, you'd take a pretty good look at it."
In 2001, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, citing internal e-mails and other documents from the fisheries service, reported that the agency's own scientists had raised grave doubts about the plan -- doubts largely shunted aside by agency managers. One fisheries service scientist wrote, "It seemed that the declaration was made upon conclusion of the negotiations, and then the charge was made to find evidence to support a conclusion that already was made."
It remains to be seen whether the fisheries service and Fish and Wildlife will approve the plan in time for a June 30 deadline set by the Legislature. If the plan is approved, officials say, it will constantly be under study and can be changed through an "adaptive management" system of perpetual fine-tuning.
What are shaping up as pivotal issues are technical points: How big should the streamside tree buffers be? Which streams need to have the buffers if salmon are to rebound?
Information will first be reviewed by a technical committee representing the industry, government agencies, tribes and environmentalists.
Then another panel of policy-making appointees drawn from the same groups will decide whether to tighten the protection measures in the plan, which the government and industry agreed to as interim targets until scientific studies are conducted.
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