Trade-off would allow timber harvest at Lake Chaplain

EVERETT — The city of Everett has submitted a 50-year plan to regulators to harvest timber around Lake Chaplain.

The area, part of city-owned watershed about three miles north of Sultan, could be home to two bird species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act: the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet.

The plan is part of a safe harbor agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a cooperative habitat enhancement agreement with the state Department of Natural Resources.

It’s a trade-off, with provisions designed to bolster habitat of those species and to prevent logging on part of the tract while allowing logging on the remainder without concern that the city could be sanctioned if it inadvertently affects threatened species.

“We give something up in order to get greater surety that future restrictions won’t become far more onerous,” said John McClellan, Everett’s operations superintendent for public works utilities.

“It doesn’t change drastically what we do in terms of how we manage our forest today,” McClellan said.

Everett owns 3,729 acres around Lake Chaplain, which is one of the sources of the city’s drinking water. About 3,000 acres of the tract is forested.

The city’s primary concern, McClellan said, is maintaining the area as a source of drinking water. However, when economic conditions are favorable, the city has cut timber for commercial sale, usually 10 to 20 acres at a time, he said.

The application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Natural Resources has triggered a mandatory 30-day comment period before regulators can issue permits.

Safe harbor agreements are a relatively new way to manage forests in Washington.

So far, only timber companies Port Blakely and SDS Lumber Co. have entered into them, and Everett is the first municipality to do so.

Under terms of the proposed agreement, 1,066 acres of the Lake Chaplain tract, or about one third of the city’s ownership there, will be set aside and protected for 50 years.

That acreage includes the types of forest believed to be most likely to support spotted owl and marbled murrelet nesting or foraging, either now or in the future, as well as steep slopes, wetlands and other sensitive areas.

The agreement also outlines a management plan for the rest of the acreage, including using felled trees for snags, reforestation of cut areas, harvest rotations of at least 60 years (compared to the industry average of 45 years) and plans for road maintenance and abandonment in the area.

The trade-off for those restrictions is an assurance that the city won’t be penalized if the logging activity harms murrelet or owl populations.

“This particular forest, they are surrounded by DNR lands, and there are murrelets east of them, so they want the assurances that they can do their forest management for 50 years as specified in the plan,” said Mark Ostwald, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s project lead for the agreement.

Murrelets were spotted in the area of the city’s diversion dam during a 2014 survey, Ostwald said. They were not seen on the city’s property, but it was reasonable to assume that their nesting area was nearby.

That area was within the part of the Lake Chaplain tract protected from logging, Ostwald said.

There is no evidence of spotted owl activity in the area, and the safe harbor agreement doesn’t require the city to conduct a survey before beginning operations. It only requires the city to minimize impacts on murrelets or owls if it later becomes aware of them.

Blake Murden, the director of wildlife and fisheries for Port Blakely Tree Farms, said the company has had a positive experience so far with its own safe harbor agreement for about 45,000 acres in Lewis County. Port Blakely signed its agreement in 2009, the first in the state.

Port Blakely’s 60-year agreement sets aside about 10 percent of the total acreage, which might be expanded over the years, and includes other habitat measures similar to Everett’s when it comes to murrelets and owls.

“Over the course of that time our intent is to have a net conservation benefit for those target species,” Murden said.

The Lewis County tract is expected to become a stepping stone for murrelets and owls between the Gifford Pinchot and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie national forests, Murden said.

“It’s just become part of our overall forest management plan,” he said.

While there are obvious benefits of safe harbor agreements in the short term, the test will be over the long term.

“The spotted owl is in a pretty severe decline in Washington, as is the marbled murrelet,” Ostwald said. “It takes many years to see habitat improvements in these cases.”

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

Public comment

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking public comment on the proposed safe harbor agreement with the city of Everett. The comment period runs through June 4. Documents can be viewed online at fws.gov/wafwo/everett_sha.html.

Comments can be emailed to WFWOComments@fws.gov, with “Everett draft SHA” in the subject line, or mailed to Mark Ostwald, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington Fish and Wildlife Office, 510 Desmond Drive SE, Suite 102, Lacey, WA 98503. For more information, call 360-753-9440.

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