Washington's War of the Owls Heads Toward a Compromise


For more than a century, Washington State has trusted that its money does indeed grow on trees. A provision in its state charter allows officials to use royalties from timber and other resources to help build everything from public schools to state prisons.

This lucrative arrangement generated $4.5 billion in the past quarter century and kept taxes low until 1990. That is the year the federal government listed the northern spotted owl an endangered species and forced state officials to reduce timber harvests dramatically.

Now Washington may be on the verge of a compromise. In a plan approved this month by a state board, the annual cut would be expanded while certain lands would be set aside for the owls. If approved by federal agencies, as expected next month, the plan would go into effect in 1999.

Not surprisingly, this bid to put the logs-versus-owls issue to rest has only stirred up a firestorm of controversy. Environmentalists say the 70-year Habitat Protection Plans should provide greater protection, loggers demand more tree cutting, and schools call for more benefit from state harvests.

The state commissioner of public lands, Jennifer Belcher, however, calls the plan a proud accomplishment, and a foe even says it the "most momentous" action of the state board overseeing the trust lands in 15 years.

The seeds for the current clash were planted more than a century ago. When the cash-poor but land-rich United States government proposed statehood to Western territories in the 1800s, it offered a dowry: millions of acres of land. The lands were to be kept in state trusts, and their resources would be harvested to pay for state construction projects.

Many states sold off most of their trust lands - preferring hard cash to the hard labor of logging - but Washington kept most of the 5 million acres it was given when it became a state in 1889.

The listing of the spotted owl - which ranges over more than three-quarters of Washington's trust-land forests - had an immediate impact. The amount of timber the state harvested tumbled from some 800 million board feet a year in the 1980s to a low of 354 million board feet in 1994.

The declining income set off an increasingly heated political battle over the state's management of the trust lands. In the spring, 15 public school districts sued the state, charging they had lost $250 million.

A few prominent regents for the state's top public universities suggested the state sell trust lands and turn over the money to universities to invest in stocks and bonds.

Meanwhile, the prospect of the federal government adding more animals to the endangered list, including salmon, spurred the state to push ahead with its conservation plan, which could last up to 100 years. Already in Washington, landowners have entered into five such plans covering 233,000 acres, and 11 more covering 3 million acres are in the works.

Across the country, hundreds of other plans are under consideration. The plans are popular because they give landowners certainty and flexibility in complying with the Endangered Species Act.

Under the state's plan, Washington would be able to increase its logging by 55 million board feet a year while effectively wiping out half of the 400 owl habitat sites. In return, the state promises to grow back enough trees to supplement the habitat. And the state will create 150-foot buffers along streams to protect salmon and other fish.

But Belcher and the plan are not out of the woods yet. Lewis County announced it would sue to stop the plan, complaining that it does not yield enough income.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are mulling their own lawsuit. Said Becky Kelley of the Washington Environmental Council: "It is not that we're against this sort of planning, but when you're talking about a 70- to 100-year time span, you've got to do it right."

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