Washington’s Marbled Murrelet Strategy: Lock Up Land the Seabird Will Never Use

Anybody who lives in, or cares about, Western Washington’s timber communities should pay attention to what’s happening with plans to set aside thousands of acres of state trust lands for the Marbled Murrelet, a small seabird primarily found in Alaska and British Columbia. These trust lands generate revenue to support essential county services and other beneficiaries, including schools.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources is in the process of developing a Marbled Murrelet Long Term Conservation Strategy (LTCS), which was a required action under the 1997 state lands multi-species Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Last year, the WA Board of Natural Resources selected a preferred alternative for the LTCS that would set aside about 30,000 acres of DNR Trust Lands beyond what many believe is required under the HCP and the Endangered Species Act. The Board’s decision was also counter to the views of a group of bipartisan legislators from the affected areas who wrote in support of the less restrictive Alternative B.

None of the additional 30,000 acres being proposed is currently being used as habitat. Most, if not all, will never grow into murrelet habitat during the life of the HCP (2057). And these set-asides are on top of the 154,000 acres of habitat that has been placed off-limits for the murrelet, of which 103,000 acres is not currently occupied by murrelets.

As Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has noted, the bird’s population decline in Washington State is occurring primarily in the prosperous Puget Sound area and its listing under the ESA is questionable. Yet government officials are considering eliminating forest management activities in many rural communities that depend on sustainable timber production to support jobs and local services, even though it will provide no benefit to the species according to DNR’s analysis, conducted by a third party murrelet expert.

During the Legislative session, legislators from timber communities sought to hold DNR accountable to live up to its trust mandate, which requires that it not set aside any acres beyond the minimum required under the ESA. There was an hour-plus debate on the floor of the House – a rarity for a natural resource issue like this. Here’s a glimpse of the debate:

Language was successfully attached to the final budget agreement that reaffirms DNR’s obligation to submit a plan consistent with its trust mandate, but it is unclear whether it will change course.

While we can count on some legislators to continue standing up for Washington’s rural communities, we need more citizens engaged and active in this process. There will be an opportunity for further public comment on the LTCS this summer, so stay tuned! We will also alert you to additional opportunities to weigh in.

Washington’s Marbled Murrelet Strategy: Lock Up Land the Seabird Will Never Use