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Forest-Fish Plan: Was it Too Political?

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 29, 2001

Scientists raised doubts about the justification for the 1999 agreement

Washington environmentalists have long been critical of new rules aimed at protecting salmon runs near logging operations, even though state and federal officials who wrote the regulations during negotiations with the timber industry insist they got the best deal they could.

But recently released National Marine Fisheries Service documents show the agency's own scientists have raised grave doubts about the "thinly supported" science used to draft the plan -- doubts largely shunted aside by agency managers.

Internal correspondence from the fisheries service, which is supposed to protect the fish, reveals a conflicted agency with serious disagreements about whether the 50-year deal covering 10 million acres of forest will sufficiently restrict logging near streams that shelter salmon and their young.

The agreement between the fisheries service, the timber industry, the state and others won legislative approval in 1999. It gives the industry an exemption from Endangered Species Act regulations that went into effect this month, so long as loggers follow technical specifications laid out in the agreement.

Yet fisheries service correspondence obtained by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shows that scientists within the agency have long shared the concerns of environmentalists: Are Washington's timber rules based more on political expediency than on sound science?

"What it says to me is that within the agency that has essentially approved the timber deal, there are scientists who wonder whether it's sound science and whether it's going to recover the salmon," said Becky Kelley of the Washington Environmental Council, which has sued to nullify the pact. "We question how the National Marine Fisheries Service could have signed off on this."

Although his agency ultimately agreed to the deal, an Environmental Protection Agency official was unusually candid in an assessment just after the Legislature approved the deal, saying his agency supported it "despite some legitimate concerns."

"Clearly, this is not a scientific judgement (sic), but a political and economic one," Phil Millam, then a special assistant to EPA's regional administrator, wrote in a May 1999 agency newsletter.

He said the agency supported it for the same reasons as the top brass at the fisheries service and the state: The pact provides better protection for salmon than currently exists. Though proponents acknowledge the science underlying the 50-year deal is incomplete, they maintain the regulations can be tightened in the future if necessary. In the meantime, they say, the timber industry will take positive steps such as fixing roads that unleash dirt into streams.

Criticisms raised

For more than three years, the fisheries service and other federal agencies dickered with the timber industry and state officials over a plan to crack down on logging alongside salmon streams, even as more salmon were gaining protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Environmentalists were included in the talks, but dropped out in September 1998, saying the pact was being slanted in favor of industry. Seven months later, the Legislature approved the "Forests and Fish Plan."

A key issue is how much forest buffer is left along streams. Among other functions critical to salmon, these buffers filter out dirt, provide water-cooling shade and attract bugs that become salmon food.

Environmentalists and commercial fishermen who have sued to nullify the agreement raise the following criticisms of its buffer requirements:

Internal correspondence

Doubts about the effectiveness of the plan are easy to see in National Marine Fisheries Service internal correspondence.

In a memo just two months before state lawmakers endorsed the Forests and Fish Plan, a scientist in the fisheries service's Boise office, Theodore Meyers, termed its salmon protections "unconventional" and complained that the timing of the negotiations put the agency in a "terribly awkward" position.

Meyers complained of "lack of scientific information/technical analysis to support" the deal, including those he raised four months earlier, and "thinly supported information provided to explain buffer widths."

Steve Morris, then chief of the fisheries service's regional Habitat Conservation Branch, complained after a September 1998 briefing on the proposed deal about "the cart and the horse problem."

"Most of the Region's technical staff had not seen the proposal," Morris wrote, " seemed that the declaration was made upon conclusion of the negotiations, and then the charge was made to find evidence to support a conclusion that already was made."

Another fisheries service scientist who earlier reviewed part of the plan asked, "Where's the science?"

Officials of the federal fisheries service, along with Locke's representatives and the timber industry, said they did listen carefully to scientists involved in more than 50 negotiating sessions. They say they arranged the deal so that scientific research will continue and requirements are not strict enough, rules will be tightened up.

And, they point out, the new timber-cutting rules the industry accepted are better for salmon than the old ones -- and are more costly to the industry.

"There was a core of federal scientists who were there (negotiating) every day and, to be honest, the negotiations stopped when they said 'This will work,'" said Bill Wilkerson, executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, a key timber group involved in the deal.

Curt Smitch, Locke's chief adviser on salmon and a pivotal figure in the talks, said for environmentalists to conclude that the deal is inadequate, based on the memos showing disagreement in the fisheries service is "to make the assumption that that scientist over there is a better scientist than the ones who were in the room with us."

"This is an interesting debate about policy within the National Marine Fisheries Service," Smitch said. "It didn't strike me as anything new. ... All of these issues we wrestled with intently."

Bob Turner was the ranking fisheries service official in the talks. Referring to criticism of the deal from agency officials in Portland and Boise, Turner pointed out that those critics are used to administering the Endangered Species Act on federal land. Forests and Fish Plan negotiators had to deal with a different reality: private land owners unwilling to accept the rules applied to federal land.

"Nobody is going to do that on private land," Turner said, adding that he, too, sees weaknesses in the plan. "Obviously, I would like the Forest and Fish report to be better. ... There's a ... difference between asking a biologist what they are comfortable with, and what they can live with."

He said the government can work to change the rules if they find that more stringent protection is needed. Critics say this would prove cumbersome and politically difficult.

Wilkerson, of the timber group, recently told government and industry officials meeting in Seattle that timber interests wanted to avoid the kind of massive economic disruption associated with Endangered Species Act protections for the spotted owl. For agreeing to a plan ahead of time, the timber industry has been "rewarded" by the Legislature, federal agencies and state agencies, Wilkerson told the group.

"That's probably why we're the only ones smiling right now," he said shortly after federal rules protecting the salmon went into effect earlier this month. "That's a good deal and we're glad we have it."

A crucial role

In getting that deal, the timber industry dealt directly with a trio of Olympia-based fisheries service scientists. But that team sought advice from time to time from Bob Bilby, a Seattle-based fisheries service scientist. Bilby's involvement raises red flags among Forests and Fish Plan critics, who note that Bilby worked for Weyerhaeuser before joining the government team and went back to the timber industry giant shortly after the plan was done.

Turner, of the fisheries service, said Bilby is held in "extremely high regard" by both the timber industry and the federal government.

"I have no doubt he would give Weyerhaeuser the same advice he gave us," Turner said.

"I provided some assistance to management scientists who did the negotiations," Bilby said. "They're the ones who carried the ball. I was strictly in a technical assistance role. The only way I could have influenced policy was through the analysis of data."

Environmentalists remember it differently.

"We had some heated discussions with NMFS regional management about Forests and Fish," said Kelley, of the environmental council. "They always pointed to Bob Bilby as their science guy and the one who gave the OK to Forests and Fish."

Records show Bilby produced at least five documents used in reaching the deal, most in the crucial final half-year of the talks.

In one memo, dated Aug. 17, 1998, Bilby in some ways reflected the environmentalists' position -- the same one they would walk out over a few weeks later, and the same one that soon would be rejected by the negotiators.

"(T)here is no scientific basis for narrower buffers on smaller streams," Bilby wrote. But he went on to outline a weaker, backup position that ultimately would become the essence of the final package: "(V)ery aggressive evaluation and monitoring effort ... focused on these smaller (streams) with all parties agreeing to alter protection as dictated by the results."

Bilby said he also did calculations for the team about how much timber could be cut outside the 50-foot "no-cut" buffer, but still within the overall 150-foot buffer envisioned for a typical stream.

Although Bilby said he supports the agreement, he acknowledged that scientists just aren't sure how well some aspects of the plan will work. "We recognize there's a level of uncertainty, and in some cases a fairly high level of uncertainty, as to whether this will achieve the stated goal," he said.

A scientist working under Bilby echoed the concerns of some others when he wrote to Turner via e-mail a few weeks after the deal received legislative approval.

Fisheries service timber scientist Michael Pollock, a former consultant to the Washington Environmental Council and another environmental group, wrote that "I have reached the conclusion that it is 1) not a scientifically credible document, 2) provides a level of (streamside) protection that is far less than any other protection plan proposed or enacted by a government agency in the (Pacific Northwest), and 3) that it will not provide properly functioning salmon habitat, even in the long run."

Turner, the e-mails show, did not return Pollock's calls. But a Turner lieutenant, Steve Landino, did get back to him via e-mail a few days later.

"We do not agree with you. Your supervisor (Bilby) does not agree with you," Landino wrote. "NMFS OFFICIALLY supports the forest and fish report. You now work for NMFS ... mixed messages from NMFS would be bad."

Robert McClure
Forest-Fish Plan: Was it Too Political?
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 29, 2001

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