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Timber-salmon plan gets federal go-ahead
OLYMPIA — In one of the most sweeping deals of its kind in the nation, federal officials Monday agreed to shield timber companies and forest landowners from provisions of the Endangered Species Act for 50 years if they follow new state rules to protect salmon when logging.
The contentious, hard-fought agreement grew out of rules approved by the state Legislature in 1999 that will govern 9.3 million acres of public and private state forest land. The rules will require loggers to leave more trees near streams, reduce timber harvest on unstable slopes and control runoff on private land across the state.
In exchange, the government will give the state's thousands of participating landowners assurances that they won't be required to further restrict use of their land to save fish.
The blueprint, known formally as a Habitat Conservation Plan, and its organizers were praised by officials from the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, who consider it the only way to ensure salmon and timber harvesting can both survive in rural Washington.
"Their health and their well-being mirror our health and our well-being," Gov. Chris Gregoire said.
Timber-industry officials were equally pleased.
"We're proud to have the guts to stay the course," said Bill Wilkerson, director of the timber industry's Washington Forest Protection Association.
The idea behind the plan was simple: Provide landowners with some kind of regulatory certainty, and offer rules flexible enough that they could change when new science suggests that new ideas are needed to restore healthy runs of salmon, steelhead and bull trout.
But environmentalists, who backed out of initial negotiations seven years ago claiming their positions would never be seriously considered, remain deeply skeptical that the program will work as designed.
"Our concern is that it is nowhere near protective enough," said environmentalist Glen Spain, of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen. "Will this adequately protect the state's fish runs? That's a big open question."
Even some landowners are concerned that the package was geared more toward helping the state's largest landowners.
Sherry Fox, spokeswoman for the Washington Farm Forestry Association, said small foresters are hit harder because they can't shift logging away from fish habitat as easily as major landowners.
Her group is working with regulators to develop long-term permits.
But Ken Miller, a private forester who hosted Monday's signing ceremony on his family's lakeside 40-acre plot thick with evergreens, said that by committing to the state's plan, "We're betting on the long term."
Seattle Times staff reporter Craig Welch contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company