Oregon agrees to cancel timber sales to settle lawsuit filed by three conservation groups; suit alleged state violated Endangered Species Act by failing to protect old-growth marbled murrelet habitat in Elliott and other state forests

GRANTS PASS, Oregon , February 5, 2014 () – The Oregon Department of Forestry has agreed to cancel more than two dozen timber sales on state forests because they threaten the survival of the marbled murrelet, a seabird that nests in large old trees.

The proposed settlement filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Eugene comes in a lawsuit brought by three conservation groups, Cascadia Wildlands, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Audubon Society of Portland.

It alleged that the department violated the Endangered Species Act prohibiting the harming, or take, of a protected species by failing to protect stands of trees on the Elliott and other state forests where threatened marbled murrelets build their nests.

The murrelet is a robin-size bird that lives on the ocean and flies as far as 50 miles inland to nest in old growth forests. The bird was declared a threatened species about two decades ago, making it a factor in the continuing court and political battles over logging in the Northwest.

The settlement comes as the state has been trying to increase logging on state forests to provide more funding for schools and counties and more logs for local mills.

The Elliott State Forest, where the bulk of the canceled sales are located, typically provides millions of dollars to the Common School Fund. But in 2013 it cost the fund $2.8 million due to reduced logging, according to the Department of State Lands. The rest of the canceled sales are on the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests.

Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman Dan Postrel said the department began cancelling timber sales in 2012 as it revised its protection policy for the murrelet, and that the settlement wraps up a total of 28 timber sales.

Postrel said the department is reviewing science related to the murrelet to "help inform the best long-term plans and strategies."

The state managed the Elliott for years by protecting habitat for threatened and endangered species like the murrelet but scrapped that approach after federal biologists refused to approve revisions that allowed more logging. Instead, the state adopted a policy used by private timberland owners that refrains from logging where protected species are actually living.

The lawsuit argued that rather than preserving a large area of trees around a murrelet nest, the department was leaving small patches and clear-cutting close around them, leaving the nests vulnerable to attacks by jays and ravens that eat the young.

"We are in an ongoing process of trying to advance a new vision with the state in encouraging them to proceed with new ways forward for these forests that don't consist of liquidating our cherished old growth forests," said John Laughlin of Cascadia Wildlands. "This sets in place a clear path forward that won't further impact the species on the state forests."

The birds are difficult to spot when they fly swiftly into a stand of trees at dawn. The nests are difficult to spot as well. The eggs are laid in a mossy depression on a large branch high in a tree.

Laughlin said the department has also agreed, in a separate action, to stop its practice of sending its own observers to verify murrelet sightings by a contractor, which conservation groups feel violates the accepted scientific protocol.

"This was an incredibly arbitrary and reckless process that we believe, in the past, led to loss of occupied murrelet habitat," Laughlin said.

Judge Ann Aiken had issued an injunction last year stopping logging on 11 of the timber sales occupied by murrelets, saying the conservation groups were likely to win.

If she accepts the settlement, the case will be dismissed.

Oregon Forest Industries Council President Kristina McNitt said in an email that the organization was worried the state may not be able to meet its obligations to the Common School Fund and counties after withdrawing the sales. She added that they believe the science "more than adequately" supports the kind of logging around murrelet nests the state was doing.

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