State agrees to review timber practices - Enviromentalists, tribes, want stricter regulations
OLYMPIA, WA 2-19-03-- Indian tribes and environmentalists persuaded the state Forest Practices Board yesterday to order a review of how state officials are enforcing a key part of Washington's timber-cutting rules.
Environmentalists had charged that the timber industry and the state were reneging on a promise to protect trees in thousands of acres of low-lying river valleys -- some of the state's most productive timberland. At issue is how much timber must be left in streamside buffers to keep the rivers salmon-friendly.
The Forest Practices Board told the staff of the Department of Natural Resources to review the issue. The board said the DNR should make the matter the "highest priority" when revising a manual that guides the DNR's decisions in deciding how much timber can be cut. The review could take a year or more, DNR staff members said.
But the attorney arguing on behalf of environmentalists labeled the forest board's move a delaying tactic.
"I'm afraid it's a very bureaucratic way to not make a decision," said Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center in Seattle. "These folks are going to study what doesn't need to be studied. . . . This means the salmon are getting screwed."
Tribes will be watching the matter carefully.
"We see this as unfinished business," said Joseph Pavel, a policy analyst at the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. "We want attention paid to it."
But a DNR official who looked into the matter at the forest board's direction said after interviewing many foresters and other scientists that the issues raised by the tribes and the environmentalists are not clear-cut.
"I think the science on this is just not definitive. . . . There is not consensus," Geoffrey McNaughton, the DNR's adaptive management administrator, told the forest board. Changes in the manual that guides the DNR's decisions on timber cuts "may be premature," he said.
The debate centers on how to apply rules developed as part of the Forests and Fish law of 1999. It calls for the timber industry to make its operations more salmon-friendly in exchange for a 50-year exemption from Endangered Species Act protections for salmon. The industry, negotiating with state and federal officials and tribes, agreed to take a number of steps to help the state's flagging salmon runs.
One was to leave intact forests in areas where streams are "prone to move" over the years, so that the streams would stay shaded and retain a number of other characteristics that help salmon thrive.
A key part of the Forests and Fish strategy is to allow logs to fall into rivers, creating logjams that help salmon in a number of ways, including creating large pools where fish can escape rushing floodwaters and trapping gravel that salmon use for spawning.
But as this happens, the logjams are likely to make rivers overflow their banks, and eventually move. The environmentalists and the tribes say the rules governing how to protect areas where rivers may move are inadequate.
"I'm talking about a tool that's maybe 90 percent there, and how to move it to 95 percent or 98 percent," said John Mankowksi, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife official who is a member of the forest board.
The board took up the matter after the Forest Practices Appeals Board, a second state panel, ruled in a challenge to a Weyerhaeuser timber cut that the manual guiding the DNR's decisions "does not contain specific language" to govern some aspects of the streamside cuts.
Goldman, based on that decision, petitioned the Forest Practices Board to change its rules. The board's decision yesterday to have the rules reconsidered will prevent Goldman from pursuing his challenge to the current rules in Superior Court.
The Forest Practices Board sets rules for logging. The Forest Practices Appeals Board, a quasi-judicial panel, hears challenges to individual timber-cutting permits.
Pat McElroy, the Forest Practices Board chairman and a high-ranking DNR official, said the issue "has languished too long. . . . We need to get on with getting on."
He said his motion to direct a restudy of the matter "appropriately puts the department on notice" that work is needed.
Board members wrestled with how they will deal with what are expected to be numerous challenges to the newly developed timber-cutting rules over the years to come.
Said board member Sherry Fox, an independent logging contractor: "We're testing Forests and Fish here, and how things like this should go. . . . There are many issues within Forests and Fish that we'll be looking at over the years."
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or email@example.com
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