Timber Owners Cut a Deal to Preserve Wildlife Habitat : Environment: Pacts allot havens for threatened species. In return, the U.S. gives landowners logging guarantees.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Murray Pacific Corp. had just closed the book on its portentous encounter with three northern spotted owls, whose wing beats in the night had tied up nearly four square miles of rich timberland--about half the firm's salable trees--in a bid to save the threatened bird.

For two years, the only sound within 1.8 miles of the owls' known nests was the hooting of biologists seeking to lure and count whatever birds might be lurking in the trees.

As lawsuits and agony unfurled throughout the 1980s over the disappearance of the spotted owl from the Northwest's old-growth forests, Murray Pacific spent $650,000 developing a plan to protect its three owls and whatever others might join them.

Strict logging standards were established. Protection buffers around the nests were assured. And the sound of chain saws and logging trucks was about to be heard again throughout Murray Pacific's 53,527-acre tree farm on the Cascade slopes.

That was in October, 1993. A few months later, a biologist documented the sound of whistling wings just before sunrise--the unmistakable calling card of the marbled murrelet, a tiny, diving sea bird that nests in the same old-growth forests.

"We hadn't even broken out the champagne when a marbled murrelet dipped its wing over the west end of the tree farm," company Vice President Toby Murray recalled with a sigh.

Facing what it saw as the prospect of a never-ending parade of endangered species crawling into its forests to make a last stand on life, Murray Pacific got religion. The company and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June signed an unprecedented all-species protection plan that will guarantee over the next 100 years a measure of safe habitat not only for the owls and the murrelets, but for any red-legged frogs, eagles, goshawks, wolves, grizzly bears, big-eared bats or members of at least 28 other endangered or threatened species that might venture a paw or a claw onto a Murray Pacific forest.

In exchange for a broad array of protection measures that the company estimates will cost about $100 million over the next 50 years, the federal government has pledged to guarantee continued logging operations, even if a new and previously unrecognized endangered species shows up--and even if something like a spotted owl sheds blood under a logger's saw.

Habitat Conservation Plans

These private "habitat conservation plans"--now being prepared for much of the vast Northwest forests and environmentally sensitive landholdings throughout the nation--are the Clinton Administration's attempt to offer some assurance and predictability to landowners who have grown increasingly militant against strict requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

They are part of a growing attempt by Congress to provide financial incentives to private landowners--ranging from estate tax reform, tax credits for endangered species management and voluntary conservation agreements--to turn protection of dwindling species into a cooperative process, not just an exercise in unpopular regulation.

In San Diego County, a habitat conservation plan has allowed a 2,200-unit housing project to proceed in La Costa by setting aside at least 700 acres for preservation of 63 plant and animal species. In Northern California, Simpson Timber Co. has gained clearance to continue logging operations on 380,000 acres of forests that have documented some of the highest densities of spotted owls ever recorded--725 captured and counted to date.

And in Oregon and Washington state, federal officials are negotiating conservation plans for some 5.5 million acres of forest--providing the first, and perhaps the last, opportunity to develop a comprehensive ecosystem plan that will link preserves on federal forests with large tracts of private timberland to guarantee habitats over the next generation, before the old forests fall victim to urban growth.

"Whatever your forest base is going to be for the next generation is [being established] now. With California, Oregon and Washington among the fastest-growing areas in the country, this will be what the forest landscape is pretty much going to look like from 20 years on out," said Curt Smitch, the Fish and Wildlife Service's assistant Northwest regional director.

For years, the problem of trying to protect endangered creatures has been that planning is at the mercy of whatever tract of land happens to house a nest or a den at a given time.

"The spotted owl is a classic example. We have just been chasing individuals around the landscape. You can set an area of protection around the owl, but if it moves, the protection goes off that area and goes onto the next place the owl lands. And as soon as the owl goes out of there, somebody goes in there and cuts [the trees]. It's not a long-term strategy," Smitch said.

"The habitat conservation plan allows you to set up more of a landscape approach and . . . you begin to deal with . . . the protection of habitat [rather than individual animals]," he said.

The habitat conservation program has become one of the Administration's highest priorities at a time when the Endangered Species Act is under siege in the courts and the Republican-controlled Congress. In Olympia, Wash., Smitch heads a team of administrators and biologists assigned to negotiate conservation plans with landowners ranging from the state of Washington to small tree-farm owners.

Federal officials are hoping that by showing landowners it can make economic sense to strike a deal on behalf of endangered species--winning long-term certainty that they will be able to develop their land--they will avert the threat that an increasingly hostile timber and development industry will convince Congress to simply repeal the Endangered Species Act or hopelessly gut it.

They also hope to offer an alternative to individuals who, fearing their land may soon be designated critical habitat, have in many cases moved to quickly level it and effectively end any discussion.

"Economic incentives are the bridge between what we are doing now and what we should be doing for endangered species," said Bob Ferris of Defenders of Wildlife. His group joined in a series of proposals for incentives to private landowners to protect endangered species prepared by the Keystone Center, a nonprofit mediation group, and presented recently to a congressional committee.

The Keystone report suggested measures such as delaying or forgoing estate taxes on large landholdings designated as habitat areas, agreements that encourage landowners to protect species even before they have been officially listed as threatened or endangered, federal tax credits for species management practices, and streamlining the habitat conservation plan process so that it is accessible to small landowners.

Federal officials are in the midst of plan negotiations with many of the region's timber industry giants, including the Weyerhaeuser Co. and the Plum Creek Timber Co., which together hold more than 2.5 million acres in Washington and Oregon.

But they also are seeking to clinch deals with a broad array of small landowners, a prospect seen as less promising because of the enormous complexity and expensive studies required to complete a plan. Murray Pacific spent $1.75 million developing its program, not counting forgone timber revenues.

Proponents are urging the development of a less complicated planning process for small landowners, perhaps a boilerplate conservation plan that could be adjusted for individual parcels. Their participation is key: Small landowners hold a quarter of the forest space in Washington and some 58% of the nation's forests.

Greg Patillo's 700-acre tree farm hugs the coast of southern Washington near Raymond, some of the best hemlock and Douglas fir-growing land in the world. Patillo, an ex-timber company worker, makes his living off the small farm. Three years ago, federal biologists thought that they detected a spotted owl on a neighboring property.

The owl wasn't found again the next year, or the next. But Patillo, who had a patch of 70-year-old timber on his farm, hasn't been able to think of a thing besides the owl since then. Patillo had been harvesting about 10 acres a year, often less. Last year, the owl in mind, he chopped down 70 acres, including most of what might have been owl habitat. To his mind, it's the government's fault.

"I'm not looking for a reward. But to use a club and tell me that I may not be able to use my forest simply causes me to panic and causes me to harvest prematurely and harvest more than I would have," he said. "All they're saying to me right now is if I grow that kind of habitat, I may be penalized."

Patillo has no plans to negotiate a habitat conservation plan, even though he has the specter of the marbled murrelet and the coho salmon--whose listing last month as threatened in Oregon and California drove large numbers of landowners to the negotiating table--hanging over his farm.

But Douglas Stinson, who has about 1,000 acres farther inland near Toledo, has already had four negotiating sessions with the Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a conservation plan for his tree farm.

"We would like to achieve one. I can't say we will or we won't at this point," said Stinson, who worked for years as a forestry employee and bought his small farm up in patches with his spare cash. "About all we can spend is what it takes in our time in writing it up. If it requires a bunch of lawyers and all that, it isn't going to fit for the individual guy."

Stinson, who wants to preserve the farm for his sons against the pressures of urban growth from the booming Interstate 5 corridor a few miles west, already has in place a number of natural conservation measures, including an 80-year harvest cycle. His proposal to the Fish and Wildlife Service is to simply maintain the kinds of habitat he has, rather than tailoring his trees to fit specific species.

"We feel strongly that you can manage a forest and take a product from it and you can still nurture the birds and take care of the habitat," he said. "But if we can't earn a living, there'll be houses here. The highest value for this land today is as a subdivision."

Environmental groups have been supportive of the habitat conservation plan process but fear timber firms may be getting deals that are much too sweet. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's pledge to guarantee landowners freedom from all future endangered species headaches--the key incentive that brought them to the table--may be overreaching, they say.

"It's as if we know enough today to protect everything that's going to happen over the next 100 years," said Charley Raines of the Sierra Club. While most plans allow extra mitigation measures in the event of unforeseen or extraordinary circumstances, the government has to pay for them.

"In the [habitat conservation plan] process, we're providing the landowner with an officially sanctioned means of continuing to log their land. In return, they protect the fish and habitat to take care of the species that are found on that land. But if there are some changes in the future, we need to be able to deal with that," Raines said.

With the Murray Pacific plan, he said, the company will gain the immediate benefit of being able to log most of its remaining old-growth timber, while the prime habitat benefits will occur much later, as new mature forest land develops in reserve areas.

That is a key feature of most of the habitat plans being negotiated. While significant buffers are set aside along streams and other areas, the plans often rely on the concept of growing habitats rather than preserving them. Thus, habitat may be saved in one area, then logged as new habitat matures on an adjacent tract.

Trees Amid Clear Cuts

Murray Pacific's plan uses modern techniques to accelerate the development of forests into good dispersal areas for young spotted owls over the entire expanse of the tree farm during the next 50 years. In areas being logged, a few mature trees and old dead trees that serve as ideal bird homes are left behind. Whole stands of trees are left amid the clear cuts. Harvests are limited to 1,000 acres a year, and no more than 5,000 acres in any 10-year period.

Murray, the grandson of the founder of the family-owned firm, said company officials told federal authorities that they didn't want to develop a plan if it meant they would become the focus for owl preservation in the region--especially if they didn't get any promises in return.

"We didn't want to be penalized if 50 years from now we've got the owl superhighway of the region and the federal government might come in and say: 'You're now an owl reserve,' " Murray said.

Other timber industry leaders have hung back from signing conservation plans, perhaps hoping Congress will weaken the Endangered Species Act. Some have likewise not been discouraged by the recent Supreme Court decision requiring protection of the spotted owl's habitat, reasoning that the decision will make Congress even more likely to step in.

On the other hand, companies like Murray Pacific see a whole generation of new species on the horizon for endangered status. Recently, the federal government recommended designating 4.4 million acres, including 50,100 acres of private land, as critical habitat for the marbled murrelet in California, Washington and Oregon.

Along with the coho, a large number of other salmon and steelhead stocks are likely to be listed soon, imposing a potential land-use quagmire on areas around rivers and streams throughout the Northwest.

"I don't think the big stuff has even started yet. Wait till they start listing fish," Murray said. In the end, he said, the scale among trees and harvest, birds and fish, revenues and forecasts, appeared to balance.

"We have thought from the beginning that we were willing to make a significant contribution to fish and wildlife," he said, "so long as we could get some kind of understanding that that would be it."

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