'Following Salmon Science' Not Easyby Robert McClure, Staff Writer
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 2, 2006
OLYMPIA -- When Washington's timber industry got a 50-year exemption from the Endangered Species Act, officials in the state and federal governments joined timber executives in pledging to do good things for salmon as a result.
Again and again they promised to "follow the science" if it showed that logging limits in the deal were too permissive.
But on Tuesday, the state board overseeing the deal had to concede that "following the science" is much easier promised than produced.
It was the first time that the state Forest Practices Board considered a change recommended as a result of scientific studies required under the 1999 "Forests and Fish" deal, which covers 9.1 million acres. And it was a mess. A seemingly simple factor intended to be used to calculate how much timber must be left alongside small streams to keep them salmon-friendly is actually pretty hard to determine, board members said.
That key factor: Figuring out where a stream actually starts.
"I really wish the first (proposed change) that came before us wasn't so complex," said board member Lee Falcouner of the state Agriculture Department. "The point we're chasing is elusive."
"We're feeling quite a bit of uncertainty," agreed board member Sue Mauermann of the Community Trade and Economic Development Department. "I'm feeling like we're not going to pass a test that's in front of us."
In exchange for protection against prosecution for harming salmon and 56 other kinds of fish and aquatic creatures, timber companies agreed in the 1999 deal to leave trees alongside streams. This cools the streams, feeds bugs near the bottom of the food chain, holds stream banks in place and filters out dirt that clouds water and smothers streambeds.
All that helps fish.
On smaller streams, the deal called for tree buffers along half of the portion that flows all year, or, as the rules put it, that is "perennial."
Now that the rules have been in effect for six years, it's turning out that about one-fifth of the time, that point can't be easily determined. And the intent of the rules has provoked arguments.
"This is just an honest disagreement about what the term 'perennial' means," said board member Toby Murray, a timber executive.
However, the rules anticipated this problem. They allowed landowners to use an alternate method to calculate where the tree buffers should start. The alternate method involves a complicated set of calculations, but studies have shown that the buffers should have been up to eight times larger than the so-called default, conservationists complain.
But board members said timber owners, particularly in Northwest Washington, have also complained.
"This is a situation where one rule does not fit all," said board member David Hagiwara, deputy director at the Port of Port Angeles. "I'm uncomfortable moving forward without a better sense of where we're moving."
Instead, board members temporarily revised the system for determining where the streams start so the "default" method, which allowed overcutting for the past six years, can't be used any more.
They instructed a lower-ranking panel made up of timber interests, Indian tribes, environmentalists and government officials to come up with a better way to determine where the streams start.
They are to report back in six months.
"We're never going to have crystal-clear answers on any of these" scientific questions, said board member David Somers, representing county governments. "That should not be an excuse for not moving forward."
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