Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include a response from the Marbled Murrelet Coalition.
The state Board of Natural Resources on Tuesday adopted a long-term conservation plan for the marbled murrelet, a threatened seabird that has been protected under a controversial interim plan for almost two decades.
The Department of Natural Resources said in a press release Tuesday that the long-term plan will protect 168,000 acres of current marbled murrelet habitat while freeing up more than 100,000 acres where timber harvests were previously prohibited.
The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), however, said the plan will directly harm rural jobs and decrease funding for public schools, fire departments, libraries, hospitals and other community services.
And the Marbled Murrelet Coalition, a multi-organization conservation group, said the plan falls "well short of meeting the habitat conservation needs required to reverse the decline of these unique seabirds in Washington state."
The murrelet was listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1992. Five years later, Washington state released an interim plan to protect the bird.
“We are resolving more than two decades of uncertainty with bold action to protect marbled murrelet habitat while supporting Washington’s rural economies,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said in a press release. “We are moving forward on a path that safeguards this threatened species while creating jobs and economic opportunity — a dual investment in the future of the marbled murrelet and our small towns.”
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The marbled murrelet, which spends most of its life at sea, will travel 55 miles inland to lay one egg per year in old growth trees. According to DNR, the marbled murrelet population declined 3.9% annually between 2001 and 2016 largely due to habitat loss. DNR estimates that about 6,000 murrelets are left in the state.
Under the newly adopted plan, the DNR estimates additional protected forestland will become suitable murrelet habitat over the next 50 years, bringing the total protected habitat to 272,000 acres of state lands.
However, conservationists said the state can do more to protect the endangered bird while supporting rural economies.
“Washingtonians should not be faced with the false choice of reducing vital services for people or causing significant loss of our wildlife heritage. In our prosperous state, our state leaders can and must find solutions that deliver both,” Becky Kelley, President of Washington Environmental Council, said in a press release last week.
The board also set the sustainable harvest level for timber on state trust lands at 4.65 billion board feet, which DNR says will guarantee a more stable flow of income to the schools, colleges and counties that depend on their revenue.
The AFRC, however, says the long-term strategy combined with the sustainable harvest calculation will reduce annual harvest levels on DNR land by 85 million board feet over the next several years.
“This is over 15% below the levels adopted in the previous decade — an across-the-board cut that AFRC estimates will result in the annual loss of almost $30 million in timber revenues to support public services and agency management costs,” according to the organization’s press release.