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Agencies release updated marbled murrelet plan

September 16, 2018

The state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have released a revised study for managing the state’s coastal forests to protect a threatened bird species.

The revised draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, for marbled murrelet conservation is open for public comment until 5 p.m. Nov. 6. A public meeting about the EIS will be held at the Burlington Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17.

The revised draft EIS includes two more alternatives than were included in the original document, which was released in November.

Skagit County is one of 18 counties within the area being evaluated for marbled murrelet conservation.

Of about 140,000 acres of Natural Resources trust land within the area evaluated in Skagit County, an estimated 43,000 acres could currently be harvested to generate timber revenue for local taxing districts such as schools and emergency medical services, said Natural Resources Forest Resources Division Manager Andy Harris.

Harvests in those areas have on average provided public services in Skagit County with $9.7 million in revenue per year from 2011 to 2017, according to the revised draft EIS.

That could change slightly with proposed protections for the marbled murrelet, which is a small seabird that uses large trees along the West Coast for nesting and raising its young.

Over the past several decades, the bird’s population has declined along the Washington, Oregon and northern California coasts. The species is recognized as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and is recognized as endangered by the state Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Natural Resources is doing the EIS to update a habitat conservation plan put in place in 1997 as a temporary measure to protect the marbled murrelet and other at-risk bird populations on state forest lands.

That plan limits logging on 567,000 acres of state forest lands throughout Western Washington.

During the time that plan has been in place, five counties have seen decreases in timber harvest revenue from state lands, according to the revised draft EIS. That includes Skagit County.

The revised EIS shows that under the preferred plan, affected counties could lose up to 2 percent of Natural Resource trust lands currently available for timber harvest or gain up to 7 percent.

What that will mean in terms of revenue will be outlined in an economic impact analysis expected to be complete by the end of the year, Harris said. That analysis will add timber values and harvest model data to the revised draft EIS.

In that document, Skagit County comes in with a 1 percent, or 430 acre, loss.

“The negative 1 percent impact, that’s going to be a small impact in revenue,” Harris said.

That’s a change from a preliminary analysis, which estimated Skagit County could see an increase of about $100,000 per year under the plan.

The preferred alternative in the revised draft EIS would add 43,000 acres of forestland protected specifically for marbled murrelets to the 567,000 acres protected in the original habitat conservation plan.

That would protect sites known to be occupied by marbled murrelets and protect a 238-foot buffer outside those areas, according to the draft EIS.

That’s a mid-range alternative compared to totals that range from remaining at 567,000 acres to increasing the area protected to 743,000.

The state Board of Natural Resources recommended in November the state and federal agencies further analyze the plan that is now the preferred alternative.

The board said that plan makes the most sense for balancing marbled murrelet conservation and timber harvest on state trust lands.

Fish & Wildlife Service spokesman Brent Lawrence said the final EIS is expected to be completed in June 2019.

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