Marbled murrelet

The state Department of Natural Resources' conservation plan for the marbled murrelet, a small seabird listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, is the focus of a lawsuit filed Thursday by four Washington counties, including Wahkiakum County, and a state coalition of school and fire districts.

Pacific County, Wahkiakum County and the Naselle-Grays River School District have joined a lawsuit against the state Department of Natural Resources to challenge the agency’s conservation plan for the marbled murrelet, a small, threatened seabird.

The complaint, filed in Skagit County Superior Court earlier this month, alleges that the plan conflicts with DNR’s duty to manage state trust lands to harvest timber at “sustainable levels” for trust beneficiaries, which include counties, public schools, fire departments, libraries and other public entities.

Trust beneficiaries rely on timber revenue to fund public services. But rural counties like Wahkiakum County could lose more than 20% of their operating revenues under the conservation plan, according to a news release by the American Forest Resources Council.

The conservation plan, which DNR adopted Dec. 10, sets aside about 272,000 acres of DNR land for bird habitat, meaning timber in that area can’t be harvested. However, the plan also frees up about 100,000 acres for harvest where such activity was previously prohibited.

Environmentalists said it fell “well short” of preserving enough habitat to save the bird, but AFRC and other plaintiffs in the suit expect timber harvest to decrease by 85 million board feet over the next several years under the plan, causing an annual loss of nearly $30 million in potential revenue and the loss of 935 Washington jobs.

“Wahkiakum County is participating in this effort to hold the Department of Natural Resources accountable,” Wahkiakum County Commissioner Dan Cothren said in a prepared statement. “Bottom line our county is still losing around $1 million per year in revenue because of marbled murrelet long-term conservation strategy.”

Cothren told TDN in September that the county to cut staff by about 30% under an interim murrelet plan. And “not even a fraction” of the 100,000 acres that would be freed for harvest under the new plan are located in his county.

Wahkiakum County and the AFRC are working on the suit alongside the Concrete School District, Quillayute Valley School District, Naselle-Grays River School District, Clallum County Fire District Number 4, Pacific County, Skamania County, Mason County and the City of Forks. The suit also names the state Board of Natural Resources as a defendant.

The marbled murrelet is a plump bird that spends most of its life at sea. It travels about 55 miles inland to lay one egg per year in old growth trees.

The plaintiffs argue that much of the land set aside for the bird will never become habitat for murrelets, and the plan overlooks the conversation benefit of tens of thousands of acres of habitat already set aside under the interim plan.

The lawsuit also alleges that DNR “failed to conduct systematic, on-the-ground inventories of its trust lands, instead using inaccurate data and a flawed model intended to support specific policy choices at the expense of trust beneficiaries,” AFRC wrote in a news release.

The bird was listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1992. Five years later, Washington released an interim plan to protect the bird.

Murrelet populations continued to decline 3.9% annually between 2001 and 2016 largely due to habitat loss, and DNR estimates about 6,000 murrelets are left in the state, according to the agency.

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