WASHINGTON — IN environmental, economic, and - perhaps most important - political terms, the red-cockaded woodpecker is not the northern spotted owl. This is the message of a groundbreaking agreement between the federal government and a major corporation on protecting an endangered species.
Under last week's pact, Georgia-Pacific (G-P) will take special precautions around the habitat of a bird whose numbers have dwindled - largely due to decades of industrial forestry in the South. The agreement is designed to prevent the recurrence of the 10-year spotted-owl story in the Pacific Northwest, which is one of legal gridlock and political struggle.
Officials also hope it will prompt other private owners of land where endangered species live to come to similar habitat-protection agreements. And in the case of environmentalists and the Clinton administration, it is hoped that this case will prove the flexibility of the controversial Endangered Species Act, which is up for reauthorization this year and which many critics want to amend so that economic and private-property factors carry greater weight in listing and protecting species.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt calls the pact "pioneering, innovative, and unprecedented."
"It's a demonstration that it is possible on a large cooperative scale to find that balance between the imperative to create jobs in forest production and the imperative to protect the environment ... in advance of the crises, in advance of the litigation scenarios that we've seen so often in the past," he said.
Environmentalists, who have taken the lead in suing federal agencies over endangered-species protection, are generally supportive of such agreements as long as they fulfill requirements of the Endangered Species Act's "recovery plans."
"This agreement represents a major step forward in halting the decline [of the red-cockaded woodpecker] on the lands of one of the major industrial forest landowners," said Michael Bean, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund. "Creative solutions like this are necessary if we are to succeed in preserving this endangered species."
For the firm, the accord means some certainty about what it can and cannot do on its holdings in Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, and North Carolina, where the bird makes its home. And it undoubtedly will be seen as good public relations. But G-P also will incur some economic impact as a result. "The bottom line is that Georgia-Pacific is going to sacrifice a portion of the profits on some of the areas that we currently have identified as being directly affected by the habitat of the red -cockaded woodpecker," said A. D. Correll, corporation president and chief operating officer.
This agreement is similar to a California effort in which developers may be allowed to build on some habitat of the threatened gnatcatcher in return for establishing habitat preserves. Secretary Babbitt wants to move toward this ecosystem approach in protecting threatened and endangered species.
The red-cockaded woodpecker lives in cavities hammered into older, living pine trees in 12 Southern states. There are estimated to be 10,000 to 14,000 birds remaining in about 4,000 groups, although many groups are isolated. The bird has been listed as endangered since 1970. Its decline is attributed mainly to "the rapidly increasing use of short-rotation management of Southern pine forests," according to a company report prepared by Gene Wood, a professor of forest wildlife ecology at Clemson University .
Under the agreement, Georgia-Pacific will identify all active woodpecker colonies, or clusters of cavity trees, on its 4.2 million acres of timberland, maintain a 200-foot buffer around and provide about 100 acres of forage for each colony, and build no logging roads in colony areas. The agreement also allows government wildlife specialists to inspect the 112 groups that inhabit G-P timberlands and to look for new ones.
Even if this is successful, however, it will not ensure the red-cockaded woodpecker's recovery. Complete recovery would require 15 large woodpecker populations, each with about 250 groups.
"Recovery is going to require some strong conservation programs on selected federal lands," said Ralph Costa, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in charge of the woodpecker's recovery program. These lands will mainly be federal forests and military installations. The Defense Department and the United States Forest Service will soon issue environmental-impact statements on woodpecker recovery.