Deal balances habitat, logging

Tumwater-based Port Blakely Tree Farms has agreed to create and enhance habitat for northern spotted owls and marbled murrelets on 45,300 acres of forestland it owns in eastern Lewis and Skamania counties.

In return, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state Department of Natural Resources agree not to increase restrictions on timber harvesting if one or both of the federally protected species takes up residency on the property.

The 60-year pact, which includes the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, is the first of its kind in the state among a private timber company and the federal and state agencies.

“We feel it’s an historic agreement,” Port Blakely President Court Stanley said. “It fits for Port Blakely.”

Neither spotted owls, which were listed in 1990 as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act, nor marbled murrelets, which were listed in 1992, have been discovered on the so-called Morton Block that Port Blakely purchased from Rayonier Timber Co. in 2004.

But Port Blakely quickly realized that its typical forestry practices, including commercial thinning of dense timber stands and longer-than-average harvest rotations, could turn some of the property into suitable habitat for the imperiled birds and, in turn, make it difficult to cut timber, Stanley said.

So the privately held timber company worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on what is called a Safe Harbor Agreement. Under the agreement, Port Blakely will:

 • Increase acreage of trees 80 years and older – from the current 500 acres to 4,800 acres in 2067.

This should provide more nesting habitat for marbled murrelets.

 • Expand commercial thinning and create additional snags to develop a more complex forest structure that will attract prey species for the northern spotted owl.

The Port Blakely property is between known owl nest sites on federal national forest land and is identified as dispersal habitat for juvenile owls.

In return, Port Blakely can’t be penalized if its forestry practices accidentally harm or kill an owl or a murrelet.

“Port Blakely has set a high bar for themselves as a commercial forest landowner,” state Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said. “They are showing how responsible long-term forest practices that enhance habitat also meet sound business goals.”

The agreement has the support of conservation groups, including the Washington Forest Law Center, which has been a persistent critic of the timber industry when it comes to protecting wildlife habitat.

“Now we have a family-owned timber company that wants to grow habitat for these threatened birds and a federal program that gives them an incentive to do it,” Forest Law Center director Peter Goldman said. “I hope more follow in Port Blakely’s footsteps.”

The forestland covered by the agreement sits on both sides of Riffe Lake and the Cowlitz River southeast of Morton near Highway 12. It’s dominated by Douglas fir with a mix of western hemlock, red alder and other conifers and hardwoods ranging in altitude from 671 feet to 4,331 feet.

John Dodge: 360-704-5444