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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.

August 19, 1995|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MINERAL, Wash. — 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.

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