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Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Timber decision sets aside acreage for owls

OLYMPIA — About 87,000 acres of spotted-owl habitat in state forests would be off-limits to most logging under a lawsuit settlement approved Tuesday by the state Board of Natural Resources.

The agreement among environmentalists, state government and the timber industry also lays the groundwork for the state Department of Natural Resources to develop a new 10-year plan for logging state lands in Western Washington.

Officials on all sides of the issue praised the settlement, which would end a lawsuit that began in October 2004.

"It was a far better deal to settle the case than to fight it for years in court," said Bob Dick of the industry's American Forest Resource Council.

Settlement talks began late last year after a King County Superior Court judge rejected the state's logging plan, saying officials did not adequately consider the environmental impacts. Tuesday's settlement sets special logging rules for thousands of acres of habitat favored by the northern spotted owl and other animals.

The federal government considers the owl a threatened species, and federal studies show its population in Washington state has declined more than 7 percent per year for about 15 years, said Eric Harlow, a scientist with the Washington Forest Law Center.

Under the settlement, 42,000 acres of high-quality owl habitat would be virtually off-limits to logging. Light thinning with an eye toward habitat improvement would be allowed on 45,000 acres of lower-quality habitat, department spokeswoman Patty Henson said.

"We're not just tweaking around the edges here," said Becky Kelley of the Washington Environmental Council, one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs. "This is a pretty big deal."

Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, who heads the department and the natural-resources board, said the settlement "restructures our approach, recognizing that there is a significant concern about spotted owls."

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