Can Washington thread the needle between endangered birds and endangered communities?

Washington state doesn’t have to choose between conserving a threatened species or helping timber communities in danger of losing state revenue and jobs, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said recently.

The state can do both, even in an arena where business and environmental interests often battle each other, Franz said.

As the state Board of Natural Resources approaches a decision on a long-term strategy to protect the marbled murrelet bird on state land, Franz is working with conservationists, businesses, economic development groups and local governments to find ways to help communities that will be affected.

“In order to move forward, we have to reject the notion that we are stuck in a zero-sum game, one which forces us to choose between a species and ensuring critical services and opportunities in our communities. Instead, we must open up to the idea that shared success is attainable and develop strategies for mutual benefit,” she said.

Some people hope a solution is not too late in the making.

An endangered marbled murrelet is shown in an undated handout photo. Esther Burkett AP

Interim, since 1997

Since 1997, the state Department of Natural Resources has operated under an “interim strategy” for conservation of the murrelet, a small seabird which feeds in the Pacific Ocean and nests in old-growth forests. Under state law, it is an endangered species. The federal government classifies it as a threatened species.

Murrelets “avoid fragmented and partially developed forest landscapes and are declining rapidly in Washington,” according to Conservation Northwest, a Seattle-based group which works to protect wildlife.

DNR designated the strategy as interim so the state could do more research on the murrelet.

Today, the state needs a new federal permit to authorize a long-term strategy covering 70 years, said Andrew Hayes, manager of the DNR’s Forest Resources Division.

The time for the state to get a federal permit for a long-term conservation plan is long overdue, said Franz, first elected in 2016. DNR plans to submit a plan this fall to the federal government on the number of acres and the locations where habitat on state land should be set aside.

Franz runs DNR, which manages 3 million acres of trust land to provide revenue for schools, hospitals, libraries and other public services.

The largest of the federally-granted trusts that DNR oversees is the Common School Trust, with about 1.8 million acres of forest land, agricultural land and other properties that help fund K-12 school construction projects across the state.

DNR also oversees State Forest Land trusts, which are managed for the benefit of counties where that timber is located and provides revenue for roads, libraries, fire districts, ports, hospitals and emergency management.

To protect murrelet habitat, the state has set aside 33,000 acres, largely in coastal communities, that are off-limits to the harvesting of timber.

State officials are studying proposals to increase the number of acres set aside for murrelet habitat, including one to increase it to 43,000, which Conservation Northwest has said is not enough. Another option calls for boosting the number of acres to 176,000.

Government estimates say the number of murrelets in Washington state declined 3.9 percent per year between 2001 and 2016. A recent estimate said there are 22,600 of the birds in Oregon, northern California and Washington state.

“In the years we have not made a decision on the marbled murrelet, some of it was to get the science we needed,” said Franz. “Then we got the science. But there was not necessarily the political will to go, ‘You know, we have to make a tough decision.’ “

DNR has 567,000 acres that it manages for other habitats to conserve riparian areas and northern spotted owls. Timber harvesting would be banned on any part of that land if it becomes murrelet habitat, said Hayes, the manager of the agency’s forest resources division.

Solutions Table

The state’s work to develop a long-term strategy for the murrelet is separate from Franz’s efforts to aid the birds, saw mills, and the local governments that receive revenue from the harvesting of timber on state land.

That’s why on Thursday, she was at the Quilcene Community Center in Jefferson County for a six-hour meeting with a committee she formed, dubbed the Solutions Table.

Members range from a veteran lobbyist who represents school board members to an official at the Port of Port Angeles.

The discussions have included finding different sources of revenue and other state land if there’s an increase in banning timber harvesting because of the murrelet, said Paula Swedeen, policy director of Conservation Northwest and a member of the Solutions Table.

“Rather than the conservation community saying, ‘We’re going to conserve (the murrelet) at all costs and we don’t care about the consequences to local communities,’ we’re in there saying, ‘We want to prevent the bird from going extinct but we are totally there to come up with creative solutions to make sure that doesn’t cause more community decline and human suffering,’ because that is not the way to go about conservation, either,” Swedeen said.

State Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, sponsored a bill that became law in 2017 that requires DNR to provide upates on how preserving murrelet habitat on state land is affecting counties that rely heavily on timber sales.

Several legislators have expressed concern that the state has taken so long to develop a long-term strategy, Chapman said. He added that the inaction has put the state in jeopardy of being sued by environmental groups and possibly falling under court orders.

Chapman credited Franz, who chairs the state Board of Natural Resources, for taking action, saying the new federal permit would “provide predictability going forward because we’ll know exactly what lands are being set aside for habitat.”

‘Weird business model’

A former Clallam County commissioner for 16 years, Chapman said the murrelet has a “weird business model.”

“They’re a sea bird, but they fly inland up to 30 miles. They nest in old-growth forests where the predators cannot be as prevalent. They need that canopy to move along from branch to branch, but it’s a heck of a trek inland. They lay a single egg on a single branch and then generally after the egg is incubated, the parents somewhat leave ahead of time and the baby is left to traverse some of this territory with hawks, eagles and owls,” he said.

The murrelet actually flies inland up to 50 miles because humans have destroyed their habitats closer to the ocean, said Swedeen, the policy director of Conservation Northwest and a former DNR wildlife biologist. The chick is a “fledgling” and the parents take turns tending it so they can get food. The fledgling leaves the nest when it’s ready, she said.

“When the bird evolved, there were millions of acres of nesting habitat that was really close to the ocean. And so we’re the ones who are making that look really weird that they have to fly so far to find a place to nest,” Swedeen said.

Over the past several years, Chapman said, the state land set aside for murrelet habitat has not had a huge impact on the timber industry in his district, which covers most of the Olympic Peninsula.

“Generally, a lot of these lands probably wouldn’t have been harvestable or good timber land, especially when they are hanging right on the coastline. But there are other benefits to setting it aside. Water is purified. Carbon dioxide is sequestered,” he said.

The fear is the federal government will approve a permit for the state’s long-term conservation strategy that stretches too far inland, affecting swaths of Wahkiakum, Pacific, Skagit and Clallam counties.

Communities in need

As the Solutions Table group met Thursday in Quilcene, Matt Comisky sat at a table in the audience, consulting his laptop computer as several topics were discussed.

Comisky, the Washington state manager for the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said his biggest concern is that the group’s ideas on how to help communities affected by the murrelet won’t come soon enough.

Barring lawsuits, the state’s long-term conservation strategy could start to be carried out next year. Comisky said he believes some of the ideas that the Solutions Table is debating may require legislative action during the next 105-day session in 2021, which often is when big issues are tackled.

“Some of these counties like Wahkiakum County — the economic challenges that they’re having in a county that relies heavily on timber sale revenue on DNR trust lands — these are issues that we need to solve now,” he said.

Franz said she’s confident that solutions will be found in time.

It’s critical to do so to avoid the impacts that some counties reliant on the timber industry suffered after the federal government in 1990 listed the northern spotted owl as a threatened species, depriving them of revenue from timber harvesting. In some areas, DNR provided 80 percent of county government revenue and that declined to 40 percent after the owl decision was announced, she said.

“We can’t address that sense of loss, but we can learn from it,” Franz added.