Crag Protects Marbled Murrelet Habitat: 28 Timber Sales Halted
In February 2014, Crag won a significant victory for the marbled murrelet when the State of Oregon canceled 28 timber sales that would have logged coastal old growth forests that the threatened seabirds need as habitat to nest.
The Oregon Department of Forestry cancelled 28 timber sales after Crag Law Center launched a lawsuit to protect threatened marbled murrelets from Oregon’s practice of clearcutting mature and old-growth trees in Oregon’s state-owned forests. Crag represented Cascadia Wildlands , Center for Biological Diversity and the Audubon Society of Portland in this case, and worked with its co-counsel – Dan Kruse, the Western Environmental Law Center, and Scott Jerger.
What was at Stake?
The marbled murrelet is a threatened seabird that nests in Oregon’s coastal old-growth forests. These robin-sized birds are protected under the Endangered Species Act because old-growth logging has destroyed large swaths of their habitat. Marbled murrelets are unique among seabirds in that they nest on the wide branches of large, old trees, making a daily trip of up to 35 miles inland to bring fish to their young. Logging of their forest homes is the primary threat to their survival.
The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) manages 1,956 acres of some of the best remaining murrelet habitat in the Elliott, Clatsop and Tillamook state forests. The Elliott State Forest is a 93,000-acre forest located in the Coast Range east of Coos Bay. The Clatsop and Tillamook are made up of over 500,000 acres in the northwest in the northwest Oregon Coast Range.
ODF previously had a habitat conservation plan for the Elliott State Forest that allowed it to log some older forest habitat in exchange for protecting other areas critical for threatened and endangered species in the long term and was working on a plan for the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests. ODF then abandoned its plans in order to log areas it had previously promised to protect.
By 2012, ODF was actively targeting murrelet habitat by auctioning off to the highest bidder irreplaceable stands of majestic forest and important nesting habitat. ODF refused to get a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the feds turned a blind eye to the problem.
In May of 2012, Crag filed a federal lawsuit against ODF, and sought an injunction against further logging, supported by the opinions of some of the best experts in the field. The state was violating the “take” prohibition for threatened and endangered species because it was allowing their nesting habitat to be fragmented. States are required to have a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service in order to harm imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act. Oregon, however, abandoned the Endangered Species Act permitting process and instead increased the amount of clearcutting on our state forests.
In November of 2012 the federal court issued a preliminary injunction against 11 timber sales and any further logging of occupied habitat. That initial injunction sent shock waves through ODF as it was the first time in recent memory – perhaps ever in the history of the agency – that a federal court prohibited the State of Oregon from logging state forests.
Instead of going to trial and defending its forest management practices, ODF instead cancelled an additional 17 timber sales – bringing the total to 28 – and agreed to reform its marbled murrelet policies. With those 28 timber sales off the table, our clients agreed to a reasonable settlement with the State and dismissed their lawsuit. As part of the settlement, the Department of Forestry agreed to pay the environmental groups’ legal expenses.
Under the settlement agreement, the state will now have to protect more habitat for murrelets on state forests. This habitat is key to protecting the species, as current research in the Pacific Northwest shows that murrelet populations are declining by approximately 4 percent per year.
“If we’re going to save the marbled murrelet, we have to protect the old forests this unique seabird calls home. The state of Oregon and ODF flouted the law for years and now are paying the price.”
-Noah Greenwald, Endangered Species Director with the Center for Biological Diversity
ODF has viewed the timber industry as its main constituency, but that’s an antiquated view of how to manage our public lands. Complying with federal law is not optional. And neither is upholding the public interest in old-growth forest, clean water and native runs of salmon.
“This is a huge win for marbled murrelets and other species that depend on older forests. The number of cancelled sales speaks to how out of alignment the state’s practices were with the law. Hopefully this marks the beginning of a new era of responsible and sustainable management of our state’s forests.”
-Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director of the Audubon Society of Portland
Cascadia Wildlands is a grassroots conservation organization that defends and restores Cascadia’s wild ecosystems in the forests, in the courts, and in the streets through advocacy, outreach, education, and litigation. The Cascadia bioregion is the forest zone extending along the Pacific Coast from northern California to south-central Alaska.
The Center for Biological Diversity believes in the value of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. They work to secure a future for all species hovering on the brink of extinction through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.
The Audubon Society of Portland has advocated for Oregon’s wildlife for more than 100 years. They work to inspire all people to love and protect birds, wildlife, and the natural environment. They also work to protect imperiled birds across Oregon, preserve high-priority habitat, fight climate change, and advocate for equitable access to nature for all Portland-area residents.