After two decades of studying a small bird called the marbled murrelet that is found in coastal habitats of Washington including in Skagit County, the state has released a new management plan for the species.
The management plan was drafted by and applies to lands managed by the state Department of Natural Resources. It is the outcome of a multiyear environmental impact statement, or EIS, process that weighed options for protecting the bird and supporting the state’s timber industry.
The marbled murrelet is federally listed as threatened due to the loss of coastal forest habitat where it nests and raises its young. The once-abundant species is now estimated to be down to about 6,000 in the state, according to a news release.
The plan, called the “Long-term Conservation Strategy for the Marbled Murrelet,” will allow Natural Resources to protect habitat for the murrelet while guaranteeing ongoing timber harvest to provide revenue to the state’s public schools and rural counties, according to a news release.
“We have both an ethical and legal obligation to protect the marbled murrelet and support our rural economies,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, the elected official who oversees Natural Resources, said in the release. “We are charting a path to safeguard this threatened species while also creating jobs and economic opportunity.”
The plan, released Friday as a final EIS, is replacing a 1997 plan that was adopted on an interim basis while a full EIS was conducted.
The state Board of Natural Resources, which oversees the Natural Resources’ forestry management and policy decisions, must review and approve the plan. The Fish & Wildlife Service must also publish the final EIS in the Federal Register and issue its approval of the state’s plans.
Through the EIS process, state and federal agencies analyzed eight alternatives for managing marbled murrelets in the state’s coastal counties. Those alternatives ranged from changing nothing to conserving various amounts of forest habitat in various locations.
Natural Resources selected the alternative that will protect 59,000 acres of habitat where marbled murrelets have been documented and another 58,000 acres the bird is likely to use, according to the release.
Protecting that land is critical for the marbled murrelet because while it spends the majority of its time at sea it relies on moss-covered branches high in trees within 55 miles of the coast to lay its eggs. The birds lay one egg each year.
Meanwhile, 100,000 of the 583,000 acres protected while the EIS was underway will be opened for timber harvest, according to the release.
That move is not expected to benefit Skagit County, which under the plan may lose $455,000 to $2.3 million in timber revenue per year depending on which EIS alternative gets final approval, Skagit County Forest Advisory Board Program Coordinator Kendra Smith said.
That’s between 4% and 22% of the county’s annual average of $10.5 million in timber revenue.
“Obviously there’s a big range of dollars there,” Smith said. “(But) it’s on an annual basis, so that’s going to be every year that we’re losing it.”
Where exactly the preferred alternative falls in the range is unclear, as Smith and others are still reviewing the almost 1,600-page document.
“We do know that the preferred alternative will have impacts on Skagit County, and the Department of Natural Resources has acknowledged that it is going to have some negative impacts on Skagit County,” she said.
Skagit County has about 140,000 acres of Natural Resources-managed forest lands. About 43,000 are able to be harvested, according to the EIS.
Various county departments and taxing districts receive a portion of the revenue from timber harvest on those lands.
While there’s local concern over hits to that revenue stream, some environmental groups are expressing concern that the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect the marbled murrelet.
Environmental nonprofit Conservation Northwest released a statement in response to the new plan stating that while the habitat conservation proposed may help sustain the marbled murrelet numbers in the state, it’s not enough to promote an increase in the species.
“We believe that more habitat conservation is required to reduce the chances that murrelets will disappear from Washington state,” Conservation Northwest Policy Director Paula Swedeen said in the release.