By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
Keeping more than 3.3 million acres in California, Oregon and Washington as critical habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet could cost up to $1.2 billion in lost revenue over the next 20 years, according to a report last week from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The service reopened a public comment period that closed in November to consider the new economic evidence in a proposal to cut more than 3.3 million acres including 390,000 acres in Del Norte County from nearly 3.9 million acres set by a 1996 rule.
The result would designate nearly 221,700 acres in California, Oregon and Washington as critical habitat for the elusive seabird that nests in the canopies of old growth forests on the Pacific coast.
Some conservation workers have called the economic estimates an inflated picture that fails to consider economic benefits of preserving old growth forest.
"There's no other side of the equation, there's no benefit side," said Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles, noting more recreational uses and cleaner water and air compared to clear-cut areas. "They didn't even look."
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service contracted the Massachusetts firm of Industrial Economics Inc. to detail impacts of critical habitat designation. The service has promoted the cut in the murrelet's designated habitat as way to fix a redundancy, since federal agencies already manage and protect much of the currently designated land.
The estimates include the costs of conservation actions such as murrelet census counts and studies. They also include the lost revenue from prohibiting use of the land logging, housing development, trails and campground construction because of the murrelet's presence.
But a critical habitat designation does not necessarily prevent those uses, since such projects can continue with permits and federally approved plans. Boyles questions the validity of projecting complete losses in revenue and suspects that the study aims to portray high costs in order to boost economic interests over environmental concerns.
Humboldt State University wildlife biologist Rick Golightly also doubted that the study gave an accurate economic outlook, since it targeted only the murrelet's connection to the habitat and omitted such factors as stream protection on those lands that could also limit production or block profitable uses.
"That's generally not an honest economic analysis," Golightly said of such focused reports.
The high estimates surprised Doug Heiken, conservation and restoration coordinator at the nonprofit Oregon Wild.
"They have hugely inflated the economic impact," Heiken said. "To blame all that on the marbled murrelet as if it's just one little critter standing in the way of progress is just misstating the issue."
Heiken, too, pointed to possible economic benefits from a critical habitat designation ensuring an ecosystem that includes salmon and the northern spotted owl, keeping water clean and maintaining forests that might attract companies to locate nearby.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates the murrelet population at 22,600. The bird ranges from the Canada border south past Santa Cruz. Between 4,000 and 5,000 nest from Oregon's Coos County to southern Humboldt County.
A listed species does not necessarily require critical habitat designations, an expensive process to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. For years, the service did not seek critical habitat designations for species, said agency spokesman Doug Zimmer.
But court settlements from both industry and environmental groups have prompted that process for many listed species. The American Forest Resource Council had sued over the murrelet's habitat and a settlement requires the service to issue a designation decision by Aug. 30.
Heiken suspects that the economic report comes from an effort by the Bush Administration to ease logging restrictions.
"To find that there's a billion dollar cost for protecting habitat that we know we need to protect," Heiken said, "It just doesn't add up."
To review a plan to reduce the amount of designated critical habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet, visit www.fws.gov/westwafwo.
Write to Ken Berg, field supervisor, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Western Washington Fish & Wildlife Office, 510 Desmond Dr. S.E., Suite 101, Lacey, WA 98503
Fax to 360-753-9405