A plan taking shape to manage the state's coastal forests will protect a threatened bird species while also ensuring Skagit and other counties don't lose significant amounts of timber revenue, according to the state Board of Natural Resources.

The board, which manages policy and transactions for forest lands managed by the state Department of Natural Resources, recently recommended a plan for balancing marbled murrelet conservation and timber harvest on state trust lands. 

The marbled murrelet is a small seabird that uses large trees along the West Coast for nesting and raising its young.

The species is recognized as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and is recognized as endangered by the state Department of Fish & Wildlife. 

Over the past several decades, the bird's population has declined along the Washington, Oregon and northern California coasts.

The state Department of Fish & Wildlife, which has surveyed the birds in Washington since 2000, determined in 2015 that the bird population in the state had declined an average of 5.4 percent a year.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the primary causes of the decline are believed to be habitat loss due to logging and fires, unintended deaths due to gill net fishing and declines in the forage fish the birds eat.

Fourteen percent of the birds' habitat in the state is managed by Natural Resources. Under its plan, the state intends to prevent logging in important habitat areas, while allowing logging elsewhere.

The Skagit County Board of Commissioners raised concerns earlier this year about the potential of losing timber revenue from state trust lands due to the marbled murrelet plan.

"We rely on that revenue," commissioner Ron Wesen said during a March 14 meeting.

State trust lands are logged to provide timber revenue to counties and local taxing districts such as schools, hospitals and cemeteries. 

The Board of Natural Resources said the plan aims to protect both the birds in their forest habitat and the communities that rely on timber harvest from those areas.

“I truly believe that it is possible to find a pathway whereby people, ecosystems and economies are all supported and given a fair chance to thrive,” state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said in a news release.

The Board of Natural Resources examined six potential plans for forest management in an environmental impact statement, or EIS, done recently for managing the birds in the state. 

The board has recommended for further study a mid-range plan not included in the EIS. 

Natural Resources spokesman Bob Redling said the recommended plan is similar to the one called Alternative D in the EIS, but additional work will be done to determine how many acres to conserve and how many acres could be logged.

Skagit County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt said he worries about the state limiting timber harvest on more land in an effort to protect the marbled murrelet because, he said, that strategy has not seemed to work for the spotted owl that was listed as threatened in 1990. 

"You look at the spotted owl ... we doubled or tripled the land (available to the species), and now there's about 25 percent as many birds," he said during the same meeting in March. "I'm not sure land is the problem."

Natural Resources staff said the recommended plan for protecting the marbled murrelet is different from that initially used to protect the spotted owl. 

"We learned many lessons from the spotted owl process and are putting great efforts into coming up with an approach that aids marbled murrelet conservation and supports the communities that are feeling the impacts of the conservation work," Redling said.

In an effort to begin protecting the birds — and other threatened and endangered species found on state forest lands — the state adopted 20 years ago a habitat conservation plan approved by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as a temporary measure.

That plan limited logging on 583,000 acres of state forest lands throughout Western Washington, Redling said. 

During the time that plan has been in place, counties that rely on timber harvest from state trust lands have lost out on revenue from protected areas.

Redling said it is difficult to determine how much revenue counties have lost as a result, but the state agency acknowledges there were losses.

"One of our frustrations right now is that we don't have good, solid numbers (from Natural Resources)," Skagit County Forest Advisory Board program coordinator Kendra Smith said of the county's financial losses. 

There's no question Skagit County has been impacted by protections set up for threatened birds.

"We had the spotted owl and then we had the marbled murrelet. We keep having more and more of our timber lands taken off (the state trust land revenue) base," Smith said.

The recommended plan for managing marbled murrelet habitat focuses on 20 habitat areas, three of which Redling said are in Skagit County.

Yet preliminary analysis of the plan would increase Skagit County's trust land revenue by an estimated $100,000 per year, according to Natural Resources Documents.

Moving forward, Natural Resources will complete a supplemental EIS to further examine potential environmental and economic impacts of the plan.

The state agency will then seek approval from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to amend the habitat conservation plan in place for 20 years and adopt a Marbled Murrelet Long Term Conservation Strategy to guide forest management for the following 50 years. 

The agency plans to finish the EIS and habitat conservation plan amendment by mid-2018 and to have approval from the Fish & Wildlife Service by 2019. 

Both documents will be open for public comment before being finalized.

For more information about the EIS process, visit dnr.wa.gov/mmltcs.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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