Port Blakely leads the way

2010-12-03 Ashley Bach

As the debate continues over the proposed new federal spotted owl plan, the Oregonian takes an in-depth look this week at a unique arrangement between a timber company and the federal government over protecting the owl.

The headline alone for the story indicates this isn’t going to be a typical tale of timber companies and environmentalists duking it out:

“In a timber wars turnabout, Washington tree farm improves habitat for spotted owl.”

Port Blakely Companies, which is based in Seattle but has operations around the world, is doing the “timber wars turnabout” in question. On 45,000 acres in Washington’s Lewis and Skamania counties, Port Blakely is creating habitat for the spotted owl and marbled murrelet in exchange for being exempted from any future logging restrictions. The company gets to log its land but also has to make sure that significant habitat remains. This includes creating habitat by deliberately killing some trees because dead trees become homes for so many species, and leaving some limbs and fallen trees on the ground.

As the paper points out, entering into such a “safe harbor” agreement with the federal government is unusual, even if the benefits to Port Blakely are clear.

…(I)t’s a private landowner engaged in leap-of-faith collaboration with regulatory agencies, and safe harbor agreements are a relatively new option. Since the first one in 1995, protecting North Carolina woodpeckers, more than 400 landowners in 23 states have signed agreements to benefit 75 creatures listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Only three agreements cover spotted owls, however, and only two are for marbled murrelets. Port Blakely’s agreements are by far the largest in each category; the next-largest spotted owl safe harbor is 2,200 acres near Humboldt, Calif.

It’s a surprising turn, given that the spotted owl in particular was at the center of timber war lawsuits, noisy protests and rancorous legislation that drastically reduced logging in the federal forests of Oregon and Washington. Port Blakely’s agreements, signed in 2009, have environmentalists nodding cautiously while other timber companies look on with a mix of interest and skepticism.

“Nobody’s called us crazy to our faces,” laughs Teresa Loo, Port Blakely’s communications manager.

Creating habitat is one thing, but the spotted owl has bigger problems. Eric Forsman, a biologist at Oregon State University and one of the nation’s leading experts in spotted owls, tells the Oregonian that the Port Blakely project probably won’t help the owl much, the biggest reason being that the spotted owl is declining not because of poor habitat but because the larger barred owl is pushing the spotted owl out of its territory.

Still, Port Blakely, the federal government and environmental groups see the project as worthwhile because it represents a new paradigm: working together to achieve common goals.

Here’s how Court Stanley, president of Port Blakely Tree Farms, put it:

“The conversation has changed,” he says. “I firmly believe there is a good path where working forests and protection of wildlife and water go hand in hand.”