The Board of Natural Resources (BNR) selected a path forward to protect the marbled murrelet and comply with the Endangered Species Act. The approach is intended to provide long-term certainty for murrelet conservation practices, and for public services and local jobs that rely on revenue from timber harvests on state trust lands. This action, the selection of a preferred alternative for the Marbled Murrelet Long Term Conservation Strategy (MMLTCS), will take the form of a Habitat Conservation Plan Amendment (HCPA). This decision has been 20 years in the making since the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) voluntarily entered into a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) with the federal government in 1997.
The 1997 HCP, which was in part designed to cope with declining numbers of marbled murrelets along the Washington coast, was meant to be a temporary plan pending the availability of better science and understanding of how to support the threatened bird. Now, nearly two decades of research has yielded more information about how to help the notoriously shy marbled murrelet. In the interim, murrelet populations have continued to decline, and affected rural communities have suffered reduced revenues and economic activity as a result of the state lands set aside by the 1997 HCP.
Today’s selection of a preferred alternative strategy put in motion the first of several steps that will deliver long-awaited answers to conservationists and timber-dependent communities located in the murrelet’s range. The BNR approved a preferred alternative that:
- Complies with ESA and the 1997 State Trust Lands Habitat Conservation Plan;
- Reduces the short-term impacts of take by using strategies such as metering of harvest of habitat until habitat in long-term forest cover develops;
- Appropriately mitigates uncertainties and risks associated with the long-term habitat conservation strategy, and;
- Ensures that no trust or beneficiary is unduly impacted.
“From today’s decision, we can now move on to develop the conservation strategy that will serve our state for the next 50 years. After 20 years of people and ecosystems held in limbo, we are now closer than ever to achieving long-term legal certainty for marbled murrelet conservation, our trust beneficiaries and ongoing timber harvest,” said Commission of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who chairs the BNR.
The selection of a preferred alternative sets up further work to be completed over the next one to two years. DNR will prepare a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement assessing the preferred alternative and submit a draft Habitat Conservation Plan Amendment to the USFWS by the spring of 2018. Both documents will include an opportunity for public comment. After consideration by the USFWS — their final response is expected in 2019 — the BNR will adopt a final Marbled Murrelet Long Term Conservation Strategy. (See attached documents for timelines, operational steps and definitions.) The final strategy may change based on public comments, input from the USFWS and any relevant scientific data.
The HCPA alone is not enough to help the marbled murrelet increase its struggling numbers in our region. Additionally, the timber supply stability that the HCPA will bring will likely not be enough to balance out the economic impact several communities have faced under the 1997 HCP. Traditionally, these problems have been viewed through the lens of saving the species or saving a community. Commissioner Franz has said repeatedly in recent months that she and DNR plan to break that mold by approaching the issue as a challenge facing us all, as one state and one community, of how to save the species and save our communities.
In coming weeks, the Commissioner will be calling together a Solutions Table made up of representatives of local governments, beneficiaries, industry and conservationists. The group will be tasked with finding ways to support the counties that have been and will continue to be experiencing economic hardship as a consequence of murrelet conservation. Additionally, the group will propose ways to aid in the recovery of the marbled murrelet outside of the legally defined Habitat Conservation Plan.
“Alongside the technical work of finalizing the HCPA, I will convene a group called the ‘Solutions Table’ to find ways to mitigate economic impacts on communities and create more opportunities to help the marbled murrelet outside of the HCPA, which cannot be the only tool used to help the murrelet,” said Commissioner Franz. “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.”
On why she’s convening a Solutions Table outside of the HCPA process, Commissioner Franz said: “We have limited room in the HCPA to find solutions between two legal requirements: that we protect the murrelet under the ESA and that we meet a fiduciary obligation to deliver revenues to trust beneficiaries. Regardless of the legal drivers, the challenge of preserving a species and the prosperity of our neighbors is something we must face together, as one community of Washington state. I believe this moment is an opportunity for us to figure out how to do our part to save this species and how to ensure that several communities are not asked to bear all of that burden for the rest of us. I believe if we commit to sharing the challenge — improving survival of the bird and supporting affected communities in a meaningful way — we can do great things. I know we can do this work with great intention and care, and our success will show that environments and economies, wildlife and people, belong side by side, thriving together.”
State Trust Lands Habitat Conservation Plan
The Washington State Trust Lands Habitat Conservation Plan, initiated in 1997, guides DNR’s management of some 2 million acres of western Washington forested state lands occupied by the marbled murrelet and other species listed as ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ under the federal Endangered Species Act. Designed to ward off conflicts between species protection and development, habitat conservation plans allow landowners to apply to the federal government for incidental “take” permits. A permit allows a landowner to disturb a listed species when using the land in return for taking steps to protect and restore its habitat.
Board of Natural Resources
The Board adopts policies, approves major commodity sales, and makes decisions about transactions of state lands managed by DNR. Its membership represents the major beneficiaries of state trust lands, including public schools, universities and prisons as well as 21 counties that use trust land revenues to support hospitals, libraries and other services. Since 1972, DNR-managed state trust lands have provided nearly $8 billion to beneficiaries.
More information about DNR Marbled Murrelet Long-Term Conservation Strategy:
Please see the attached documents, as well as the sites below:
Marbled Murrelet Long-Term Conservation Strategy web page: https://www.dnr.wa.gov/mmltcs
Habitat Conservation Plans, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service factsheet: https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/HCP_Incidental_Take.pdf