The Oregon Department of Forestry’s work surrounding threatened and endangered wildlife species such as the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet benefit not only the environmental assets of the state’s forest lands, but also provide information vital to offering a steady supply of potential timber harvesting, wildlife biologist Nicholas Palazzotto said Friday in Linn County Circuit Court.
Palazzotto testified about the lifestyle and habitat needs of the marbled murrelet, an endangered seabird whose nesting habitat extends as far as 50 miles inward from the coast, as well as the northern spotted owl, whose habitat extends throughout much of the 600,000 plus acres of state forest lands.
He was one of three witnesses who testified for the Department of Forestry in a $1.4 billion breach of contract class action lawsuit being tried in a Linn County courtroom. In the suit, 14 of the 15 Oregon forest trust counties and 151 taxing districts allege that the state has not maximized timber harvests from state forests since 2001, thereby depriving the litigants of millions of dollars in possible revenues.
The issues surrounding endangered species can have an impact on the amount of timber harvested from these forests, which the counties deeded to the state in return for a share of timber revenue.
Palazzotto said there are different surveying protocols for the murrelet and spotted owl, but both systems are designed to identify whether there are single birds or mating pairs in given areas of the forest. Both systems require numerous actual site visits by trained survey specialists.
Those specialists do not have to be state or federal employees, he added. Some conservation groups have paid to train survey specialists and their findings can be accepted by the government agencies involved in administering the Endangered Species Act, Palazzotto said.
Palazzotto said marbled murrelet management areas — potential habitat areas — make up only about 3%, or 22,000 acres of the more than 600,000 acres of state forest lands.
He said that does not mean birds have been identified in those areas, nor does it mean timber harvesting cannot occur there, although buffer areas encompassing from 20 to 800 acres (average 100 to 200 acres) may be established to protect known sites.
Palazzotto told state’s attorney Christina Beatty-Walters that marbled murrelet habitat is usually found in older tree stands, at least 60 years old, but most likely even older than that. He said old growth stands — at least 175 years old — account for only about 1% of state forest lands.
He also said that although the state has attempted to manage the forest on a structure-based management plan for 21 years, it is atypical to find any marbled murrelet nest in younger tree stands.
Palazzotto said the surveying protocol for the northern spotted owl encompasses 30 pages. He said buffers around known spotted owl nesting sites can be up to 4,000 acres.
During cross-examination, plaintiff's attorney John McGrory said a draft of a proposed forest management plan about to be sent out for review by the public and Board of Forestry includes numerous pages detailing conservation plans for wildlife that has not been listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Palazzotto said the draft is ready, and it includes the use of what he called "conservation emphasis areas."
McGrory asked if timber harvesting in those areas would be affected. Palazzotto replied, “not necessarily."
McGrory asked if the state ramped up its timber sale program to 50-year harvest rotations, would species such as the spotted owl and murrelet not be attracted to state forest lands, thereby reducing the need for annual surveying (those costs are borne by the state, not counties) and buffer areas, while staying within the rules of the Endangered Species Act.
Palazzotto said known species sites would have to remain protected.
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Another witness on Friday was consultant Martin Raphael, who has decades of experience as a wildlife biologist, with much of his work focusing on the marbled murrelet. He said its nests were not discovered in Oregon until 1974.
He said the murrelet lays only one egg, usually in a flat, indented area of an older conifer. The adult male and female take turns bringing the single offspring food, harvesting it from daily trips to the ocean.
He said the adults are fast and usually fly before daybreak to avoid predators. He said that in Washington, Oregon and California, there are only an estimated 23,000 marbled murrelets which is a fraction of most bird totals.
He said the population was “on the edge of healthy,” since most bird populations are at least 10 times that amount.
Raphael said that in general, timber harvesting decreases potential nesting areas, increases what he called “hard edges” where standing trees meet harvested open areas, and decrease habitat quality.
Raphael said that eliminating potential species habitat, by incorporating a 50-year harvest rotation, “is not protection” of a species.
The last witness of the day was University of Oregon assistant professor Steven Beda, whose work has focused on the history of forest issues in the Pacific Northwest.
Beda talked about the need to look at both archival materials —such as minutes of government body meetings — in context with other historical documents such as newspapers and magazines of the same era. That gives the researcher a broader understanding of the times and how social, economic and environmental factors weighed in on decision-making, Beda said.
Beda talked about the friendship between President Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service.
He said both men were conservationists who believed in a balanced approach to forest management that included timber harvesting along with social and environmental benefits for the long-term.
That philosophy conflicted with those of others of the day, such as Frederick Weyerhaeuser, who accumulated the most timber land in the United States in the early 1900s, starting with 900,000 acres purchased in 1906 from railroad magnate James J. Hill.
Beda said Weyerhaeuser’s management plan was to “cut and run,” meaning harvesting as many trees as possible and then selling the cut-over lands.
Beda said Roosevelt and Pinchot feared that poor forest management would lead to a “timber famine." Western states retained much of their timbered acres and the two men, and others, began fomenting long-range plans to balance the use of those lands.
He added that Pinchot (and others who shared his conservation beliefs) would train the people who would develop the 1939 Forest Acquisition Statute that led to the development of Oregon’s state forests.
Beda will continue detailing how forestry values have changed over the decades starting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, before Judge Thomas McHill.