Today is the final day for the public to weigh in on a giant new habitat conservation plan—called the Forests and Fish Plan—that will govern how Washington’s timber industry behaves and how well it safeguards habitat for endangered salmon. Here’s the punchline: the plan will essentially grant the timber industry 50 years of legal immunity to the federal Endangered Species Act.
This is not a smart move.
Habitat conservation plans, ostensibly designed to protect endangered species, often authorize destructive activity that harms the very creatures they are supposed to protect. The Forests and Fish Plan will supposedly require timber companies to repair roads that erode into salmon streams, as well as leave streamside timber uncut. But the plan also leaves out a number of important measures.
Here is just a sampling of criticism that appeared in a recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer article:
"Clearly, this is not a scientific judgment but a political and economic one," wrote Phil Millam, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official involved in the talks.
"It was sort of preordained to make dumb decisions," said James Karr, a University of Washington fish researcher, who criticizes the deal for relying on "the opinion of people who were in the room at the time" rather than on solid science. He and 27 other scientists wrote to then-Gov. Gary Locke to complain that the plan had "a low probability of achieving its goals."
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The Tulalip Tribes have used computer models to predict water shortages and other problems. Logging vast stretches will only exacerbate the situation, as water runs off more quickly instead of being soaked up by forests, said Terry Williams, the Tulalips’ fisheries and natural resources commissioner.
Fish and Wildlife biologist Shelley Spalding expressed concerns that the lack of scientific expertise in the talks meant its basis "may be voodoo science."
Steve Morris, then chief of the federal Fisheries Service’s regional habitat conservation branch, complained that "the declaration was made upon conclusion of the negotiations, and then the charge was made to find evidence to support a conclusion that was already made."
It’s almost as if the plan was written by the timber industry with the help of a few agency officials. Oh yeah, that’s exactly what happened.
Worse, there is no guarantee that timber operations will comply with the plan. The US General Accounting Office found that Endangered Species Act protections were rarely enforced for the plans. And the Seattle Post-Intelligencer discovered that there is no formal process for addressing failures to live up to the plan. In fact, the possibility of revoking a permit is practically non-existent. In 23 years of habitat conservation plans, it has never been done.
Incredibly, the deal gets even worse. The industry will be protected under a "no surprises" clause that allows them free reign to destroy endangered salmon habitat, even if scientific assessments of the magnitude of the harm change a decade or more later. So, even if new information comes to light, the timber industry won’t be held accountable.
Washington’s natural heritage is being sold-off to the timber industry—and not for the first time. The losers here are all of us, not to mention our children and grandchildren who may very well inherit a Northwest of diminished beauty and ecological integrity. Many of the salmon stocks that symbolically unite the region—already endangered in our time—may be sacrificed to industry before future generations ever know them.