PACIFIC and WAHKIAKUM COUNTIES — A proposed long-term conservation strategy for marbled murrelets will reduce revenues and possibly employment in Pacific and Wahkiakum counties, according to an environmental impact statement released by the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
To better reflect suitable marbled murrelet habitat as well as free up some areas for logging, DNR has been working on a Marbled Murrelet Long Term Conservation Strategy.
On Friday, Sept. 20, the department got closer to putting the strategy into place when it published the environmental impact statement, which details eight proposed conservation strategies. The Washington Board of Natural Resources prefers a strategy called Alternative H.
Alternative H would free up about 100,000 acres of forestland for logging for the first time in 20 years, land that will generate revenue for rural communities across the state, according to a DNR news release.
Exact dollar impacts from the change are still uncertain. DNR analyzes something called “operable acres” to estimate the net effects in a county from changes in forest classifications. State Forest Trust Transfer Lands won’t change in Pacific and they would increase for Wahkiakum by 7 percent. Acres of State Forest Purchase Lands available for harvest in Pacific County would decline 6 percent.
But, Daniel Cothren, chairman of the Wahkiakum County Board of Commissioners, who has represented the county in Solutions Table discussions led by DNR, doesn’t believe Alternative H will send significant funds to his county.
The marbled murrelet is a small, fast-flying seabird that only comes on land to lay eggs and rear its young, spending the rest of its life at sea. In total, 168,000 acres of marbled murrelet habitat will be protected under Alternative H, much of it in Pacific and Wahkiakum.
Because the murrelets are an endangered species, disturbance of its habitat is regulated by federal and state laws. An interim conservation strategy was put into place in 1997 that governed how DNR managed forests where murrelets lived. The department has operated under that interim plan for almost 20 years.
This hurt counties that relied on harvests from state forests to generate revenue for county budgets. And with logging the main industry in Wahkiakum County and a significant source of jobs and revenue in Pacific County, these counties were less able than others to tolerate the reduction in harvest volume.
Money from timber sales and timber sale related activities contribute about an average of $2 million annually to Pacific County schools, fire districts and other government services. In Wahkiakum, the sales and related activities contribute about $1.5 million to the county’s general fund, according to the report. But there was a time when revenues for Wahkiakum were closer to $2 million, Cothren said.
With less timber money coming to Wahkiakum, officials dipped into reserves from previous timber sales to maintain service levels, Cothren said. That money is gone now though, he said. The county is having to think out of the box about how to recapture land that is not restricted.
“I got to look people in the eyes of people in the county government while they wonder about whether they are going to have a job or if this county is going to survive,” Cothren said.
To help offset the revenue reductions for the counties, Pacific and Wahkiakum have received distributions from land transactions under the state forest trust land replacement program. Between 2019 and 2011 the two counties received about $4 million each in funding through this program. But funding varies year to year, the environmental impact statement said.
Murrelets lay one egg per year, only setting them atop large moss-covered branches high in the forest canopy within 55 miles of saltwater. The bird’s population decline is linked to the loss of inland nesting habitat, decreased availability of prey, and increased densities of predators.
DNR manages 14 percent of existing marbled murrelet habitat in Washington state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the land managed by DNR in Clallam, Pacific and Wahkiakum counties to be important habitat to the conservation of the species, of which approximately 6,000 are believed to remain in the state.
Over the next 50 years, DNR said more forestland will become suitable for marbled murrelets as the forests mature and grow. The department hopes this will result in about 272,000 acres of murrelet habitat on state lands.
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz is the elected official who oversees DNR. She is in charge of managing her department’s dual goals of protecting the marbled murrelet, and supporting the state’s rural economies.
“We’ve struck the right balance and as a result people aren’t going to be 100% satisfied,” Franz said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the marbled murrelet as a threatened species since 1992. DNR signed a Habitat Conservation Plan with Fish and Wildlife in 1997 that contained the interim strategy for marbled murrelet recovery. The long-term strategy in the final environmental impact statement will replace this strategy, the department wrote in its release.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife will have the final say about whether to approve the state agency’s application for an incidental-take permit, which accommodates some legally permissible loss of murrelets in the course of forestry and other activities. If it is approved, the Board of Natural Resources will select which of the alternatives listed in the environmental impact statement will be used to guide resource management in areas previously designated as marbled murrelet habitat.