DNR needs to balance habitat protection and trust duties

A growing number of Washingtonians realize that “locking up” public timberland isn’t good policy.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is considering a plan to restrict production on thousands of acres of working state forest land to create “habitat” for the marbled murrelet, a bird largely found in Alaska that spends most of its life at sea. The plan is controversial, as proved by the related public comment period that just ended.

A growing number of Washingtonians — and especially people here in our part of the state — realize something that bureaucrats in Olympia and D.C. don’t: that “locking up” public timberland isn’t good policy. Everyone in this state has an interest in finding better solutions.

Restricting sustainable timber harvests on state forest land affects all of us—not just loggers and millworkers. It affects public education, public libraries and the many community services that we’ve all come to expect. And depend on.

Some quick history: When Washington became a state in 1889, the United States Congress provided millions of acres of trust lands to support public institutions. During the Great Depression, we put additional forest land into trust to benefit local governments. State law mandates that all of these forest lands are managed by the DNR to provide funds for counties, schools and other junior taxing districts. These timber dollars help keep our libraries open, support hospitals and equip first responders.

Any restriction in timber harvests on public trust lands managed by the DNR causes real-world suffering. For example, the Timberland Regional Library system faces some tough fiscal problems right now. Its senior managers project a budget deficit of $700,000 in 2020 and have suggested closing library branches in response. One reason for these problems: the library system used to receive more than $5 million in timber revenue each year. Now it gets less than $1 million annually.

If the DNR locks up more public timber land for marbled murrelet, that will only make the library’s bad fiscal situation worse.

If this story sounds familiar, it should. Many communities in Western Washington have never fully recovered from the 1990s decision to set aside millions of acres of federal land to “save” the northern spotted owl. Sadly, that scheme didn’t work. Spotted owl populations didn’t recover. And, we can expect the same sad result with the marbled murrelet. In fact, the DNR’s own projections show this latest set-aside scheme won’t save this bird, either.

The best science suggests the marbled murrelet, when it’s on dry land, needs old growth forest for nesting. A close review of the locations where timber harvests would be prohibited under the DNR’s latest scheme shows thousands of acres of young forest lands that are not — and won’t any time soon be — suitable habitat for the murrelet.

While the dramatic decline of timber harvests on federal land decimated rural economies, steady and sustainable management of state forest lands has allowed some of these communities to survive. Timber harvests on state land support more than 100,000 jobs and contributes $5.5 billion in wages each year to Washington’s economy. We need to keep these jobs!

There’s plenty of public land currently reserved for the marbled murrelet. Already, 567,000 acres of DNR-managed land are set aside for species conservation under the agency’s 1997 Habitat Conservation Plan. In addition to that, millions of acres of federal forest lands have also been set aside as national parks, designated wilderness and reserves for species like the murrelet.

Restricting traditional harvests on state trust timberland is a crude approach to lands management. And it’s a lazy approach. Most importantly, it isn’t an effective way to balance the public interest — to protect vulnerable species, working families, public libraries and the other services that make our communities great places to live. The DNR should take a step back. It should develop a plan that honors its trust obligation to generate revenue for the Timberland Library System and provides habitat for the marbled murrelet.

Jim Walsh represents southwest Washington’s 19th Legislative District in the state House of Representatives.