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Jaime Herrera Beutler Weighs in on Flawed Marbled Murrelet Plan that will Harm Pacific, Wahkiakum Counties

In letter to U.S. Interior Secretary, Herrera Beutler questions flawed computer modeling and locking away non-habitat that will harm rural communities without helping species

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Washington, D.C., November 6, 2019 | comments
Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler expressed serious concerns to U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt this week over a flawed conservation plan that will harm rural communities within Pacific and Wahkiakum Counties.
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Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler expressed serious concerns to U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt this week over a flawed conservation plan that will harm rural communities within Pacific and Wahkiakum Counties.

In a letter to the secretary, Herrera Beutler questioned several flaws with measures proposed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While these measures lack the science to provide benefit to the endangered Marbled Murrelet, they will certainly reduce funding for basic services in these economically-distressed counties.

“This flawed plan will have devastating – and unnecessary – impacts on rural economies and state trust land timber revenues that fund essential local public services in Southwest Washington, especially those in Pacific and Wahkiakum counties, all without any measurable benefit for the Marbled Murrelet,” Herrera Beutler said in her letter.

The full text of the letter follows and a PDF is available here.

Dear Secretary Bernhardt,

I am writing again to express concerns with the proposed Marbled Murrelet Long Term Conservation Strategy (MMLTCS) being developed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under the federal Endangered Species Act.  This flawed plan will have devastating—and unnecessary—impacts on rural economies and state trust land timber revenues that fund essential local public services in Southwest Washington, especially those in Pacific and Wahkiakum counties, all without any measurable benefit for the Marbled Murrelet.   

In 1997, DNR entered into a multi-species Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) with USFWS and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries covering about 1.3 million acres of state trust lands in western Washington within the range of the Marbled Murrelet.  That plan removed about 42 percent of these trust lands from timber harvest activities for the conservation of fish and wildlife species.  This was a significant sacrifice for trust beneficiaries, including those in Southwest Washington.  The state of Washington has an obligation to manage these lands for the benefit of trust beneficiaries, including schools, hospitals, libraries, and county governments. 

The 1997 HCP called for the development of a long-term plan for Marbled Murrelet conservation across all land ownerships.  While little has been done to quantify the number of Marbled Murrelets or acres of suitable habitat on federal lands, DNR and USFWS are working to finalize a MMLTCS for state trust lands.  DNR recently released its updated preferred MMLTCS alternative, which would exceed the acreage set aside under the 33,000-acre Interim Strategy - a plan that was universally considered overly conservative when it was adopted in 1997. 

There is no debate about protecting occupied Marbled Murrelet habitat and old-growth forests that provide suitable Marbled Murrelet habitat on state trust lands.  In fact, all of these areas have already been set aside under the 1997 HCP, Washington State Board of Natural Resources policy, and under every MMLTCS alternative under consideration.   

Unfortunately, the proposed MMLTCS relies on a computer model (“P-Stage model”) that incorrectly identifies tens of thousands of acres of young and intermediate age forests as Marbled Murrelet habitat—even though these stands do not contain the features, such as legacy trees with thick moss-covered branches, needed by the Marbled Murrelet.  Many of these younger forests will take a century or more to develop into suitable Murrelet habitat—well beyond the end of the HCP in 2067.  Some stands will likely never develop into Murrelet habitat unless they are mechanically thinned, an activity that’s specifically prohibited under the MMLTCS. 

DNR and the USFWS have done little to verify the results of this computer model through on-the-ground forest stand reviews.  Instead, the MMLTCS relies on this flawed computer model to determine how habitat take and mitigation are valued—creating a situation where the proposed future harvest (“take”) of non-Marbled Murrelet habitat is being mitigated by setting aside equally unsuitable non- Marbled Murrelet habitat.   This makes no sense to the rural communities that I represent.

To make matters worse, USFWS is applying a double standard to the MMLTCS take and mitigation calculations for about 37,000 acres of narrow strips of forests classified as Marbled Murrelet habitat under the model.  The proposed MMLTCS gives DNR no mitigation credit for over 28,000 acres of this so-called “stringer” habitat set aside under the 1997 HCP based on the rationale that it does not provide quality nesting habitat.  On the other hand, DNR would be required to mitigate for the harvest (take) of over 8,500 acres of similar narrow strips of forestland that DNR may harvest under the MMLTCS.  While this mitigation requirement was discounted by approximately 20 percent, this unfair double standard is still driving the set aside of thousands of acres of state trust lands at an immense cost to trust beneficiaries and rural economies.

Finally, I am concerned that the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) jointly developed by DNR and USFWS falls far short of disclosing the likely socioeconomic impacts to rural communities and the likely loss of timber revenues to fund essential services as required by both the National Environmental Policy Act and Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act.

Before USFWS takes any additional action on the MMLTCS, I urge you to work with the agency to address these serious questions:

  • What on-the-ground verifications have been conducted by USFWS to confirm the accuracy of the P-Stage model’s identification of state trust lands as actual or potential Marbled Murrelet habitat?
  • What is the justification for prohibiting sustainable timber harvest activities on tens of thousands of state trust lands that do not contain the functional elements of Marbled Murrelet habitat when that prohibition will directly undermine beneficiaries’ ability to offer critical public services?
  • What is the policy and legal justification for the USFWS’s decision to deny mitigation credit for “stringer” Marbled Murrelet habitat set aside under the 1997 HCP while requiring DNR to mitigate for the harvest (“take”) of similar narrow stands of Marbled Murrelet habitat under the MMLTCS?

Since the proposed the MMTLCS will have a significant impact on the communities that I represent, I request that any further consideration of the plan be put on hold until these serious concerns are addressed.

I appreciate your leadership at the Department of the Interior and look forward to working with you to ensure the rural, forested communities I represent are not unfairly and needlessly harmed by this decision.

 

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