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Last of the caribou? 

by Patrick Michael Murphy
In the still wild Selkirk Mountains, about two hours north of Spokane, live the last Woodland caribou in the United States. They once roamed widely across the northern regions of our country, but the remaining 40 or so now serve as an unwilling centerpiece for the complex debate over protecting the economy, or the environment, as a regional lumber company seeks access to the caribou's last roaming grounds.


The Stimson Lumber Company owns 400,000 timberland acres across the Northwest, including the Molybdenite Caribou Management Unit east of Ione, Wash. This area is set aside by government agencies for the protection of Woodland caribou.


Woodland caribou should not be confused with the more plentiful barren ground caribou of the northern climes, and some say that if the lumber company begins logging in this area it will push the Woodland caribou -- which is also in trouble in Canada -- into extinction in this country.


Fifty-year-old Dwight Opp manages timberland for Stimson. Whether at a desk loaded with documents or walking the forest, Opp works every day to make his company profitable, while providing wood products he says consumers want and need.


At the company's Newport, Wash., regional offices, Opp levels a steady gaze and says, "Harvesting trees is not a sin in my belief."


Just across the Pend Oreille River from Opp's office, in the struggling northwest logging town of Priest River, Idaho, is Mark Sprengel, the Forest Program Director for the Selkirk Alliance, a 500-member environmental group. Like Opp, the 52-year-old Sprengel watches over forests, but focuses on public lands owned commonly by the citizens of this nation.


Also spending days strapped to desk and phone, he works to change what he describes as America's abusive behavior toward forests. In a cramped office shared by two fellow workers, Sprengel says, "We support progressive, constructive attempts at land management."


Industrialist Opp who believes the environment needs reasonable protection, says Stimson does manage land constructively even as it seeks profit. Environmentalist Sprengel -- who logged for 10 years -- says he understands industrial needs and believes tree harvest can occur in a manner nurturing to the Earth. Still, both men see each other and the people they respectively represent, as radical and mired in outdated philosophies. And they are locked in a struggle to see whether Stimson will be allowed to log areas thought to be sensitive to not only the caribou but also to other endangered species, like grizzly bears, lynx, gray wolf and bull trout.





A Question of Access


The National Forest Service's term for Stimson's request for access to six parcels of company land is the Stimson ANILCA Access Easement (SAAE). ANILCA stands for Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which was signed into law in 1980, preserving millions of acres of wilderness in Alaska. ANILCA soon plays a part in this story, but for now understand those Stimson lands -- totaling nearly 1,600 acres in northeast Washington, north of Newport -- are heavily forested with Douglas fir. But it's landlocked, surrounded as it is by thousands of acres of public lands managed by the Colville National Forest.


In the close-by Idaho Panhandle National Forest (IPNF), Stimson owns another 558 acres of woodland. There, Stimson has threatened IPNF with a lawsuit if access is not provided.


Stimson wants to harvest trees on the land, but in order to do so it needs roughly four miles of segmented roads across public property to reach the areas. No roads currently run through those areas. Opp says he wants to build new roads and have the Forest Service share in the cost wherever the Service may use the same roads.


"There's a lot of benefit to working cooperatively when talking about access," says District Ranger Fred Gonzalez. He oversees those public lands and says the Forest Service and private parties have shared road building expenses for decades -- simplifying the Service's job of managing lands and at obvious savings for taxpayers.


Opp estimates that his loggers could take 20 million board feet of timber from Stimson's Washington acres alone. That's 4,000 logging trucks' worth. One logging truck full of timber equals 5,000 board feet of lumber, and according to foresters, it takes 10,000 board feet to build an average American home. So the area Stimson wants to access could produce enough lumber for 2,000 homes.


For the Selkirk Alliance and eight other citizen groups -- among them the The Lands Council, Kettle Range Conservation Group, Pend Oreille Environmental Group -- Sprengel argues that loggers often overestimate harvest amounts to garner support for accessing unspoiled areas. Additionally, Sprengel argues that wood comes from any forest, and describes those public lands around Stimson's (and Stimson's own) as too fragile for industry. Especially since they are some of the few remaining sanctuaries for numerous acutely sensitive species of wildlife.


Sprengel says a better solution would be to do a land swap, or if that's not an option, even helicopter logging, since that requires no roads.


Sprengel cites his 12-year-old group's participation in only two past timber sale appeals as proof that his organization is not against logging, but rather hopeful of working toward future sustainable forest practices based on non-politicized science.


"We have worked for years to find a way to work with them," Sprengel says. "We live and work here in the small rural communities. We see the impacts of what we want to do."


But Sprengel also says his attempts to talk over the access issue with Opp, or even Opp's boss John McGhehey in Stimson's Portland office, have been met with, "adamant refusal to sit down and negotiate."


Opp says such meetings would likely do no good, and is unwilling to accept terms from environmental groups who give no quarter. He wants to prove logging and care for the land can go hand-in-hand. "I think we're willing to do what's reasonable and prudent," he says.





A legal solution?


Determined to prove its point and get its way, Stimson may take its case to court, and this is where ANILCA comes in. It turns out that in addition to preserving millions of acres of Alaskan lands ANILCA also says that the government has a duty to provide access across public lands to private land owners for "reasonable use and enjoyment." That's why Stimson can use ANILCA, and the courts, to force the Forest Service to put roads through the wilderness.


Whether ANILCA applies to lands outside Alaska has already been tested in court. Tim Preso, an attorney for the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund, says that in the early-1980s Burlington-Northern Railroad went to court to gain access to its lands surrounded by Gallatin National Forest in Montana. At that time, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided the law does apply to lands outside Alaska.


Still, Preso says, "It's very much up in the air exactly what ANILCA means." He points to another ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in another matter, which stated that ANILCA does not apply to lands outside Alaska.


At this point, it's anybody's guess what a new case might deliver. Sprengel's argument against access -- and the Forest Service's Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) compiled to weigh possible environmental impacts -- contains more than a dozen main points, in addition to the fate of those 40 surviving caribou.





Beyond caribou


Another exclamation mark in Sprengel's argument is the LeClerc Grizzly Bear Management Unit (BMU), an area set aside as special habitat for the federally protected bear. Grizzlies once roamed from Canada to Mexico, from the Pacific coast to the Great Plains, but were intensely hunted, poisoned and trapped, mostly because they were assumed to be a threat to livestock.


Today, only a few small Grizzly populations exist in the contiguous United States; most are located in the northern Rockies.


In regards to the few dozen bears still living in northern Idaho and northeast Washington, poaching ranks second only to loss of habitat as a serious detriment to their survival. But the bear management unit is not all on public property managed by the Forest Service. In fact, more than 25 percent of the area is not public land -- it belongs to Stimson Lumber.


Sprengel says Opp's attempt at road access into these forests areas is, "Typical of the incremental nibbling away of these last islands of habitat." He adds: "What will we say to people in 50 years when they ask where are these animals and this habitat?"


About the possibility of grizzlies or caribou becoming extinct due to Stimson's logging projects, Opp says: "I'm very skeptical that that will happen." He says that his company has gone to great lengths to work with the government, to be a good steward of the land. He also points to the Washington State Forest Practices Manual, a huge manuscript that regulates how the forest products industry may conduct business.


And in regards to accessing lands in caribou and grizzly habitat, Opp says his company helped draft unique operational conditions set forth by a Conservation Agreement (CA). The CA is a pact between Stimson, the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intended to limit impacts of the logging activity within this project's area. It's an area home not only to caribou and grizzly bear, but to three other threatened or endangered species: lynx, gray wolf and bull trout.


Opp says this is his company's attempt to blend economics with science in this ongoing slow-dance concerning man's place in nature. The CA covers such specifics as open road density -- referring to roads built by Stimson on its land. Opponents say roads provide access for potential poachers, create opportunities for accidental mortality and in themselves change the basic habits of wildlife. The CA limits roads remaining open to public travel after and between logging periods, with the amount set at one linear mile of road per square mile of land.


The agreement covers other issues like road location, seclusion habitat, riparian zones, timing of operations... it's detailed stuff, and it's easy to get overloaded reading through the document; the complete EIS is nearly 575 pages.


But the CA does not impress Sprengel. He argues, for instance, that open road density means little. "Even if they close roads, studies have shown that there is increased [human] incursion into those lands, and bear develop avoidance behavior, where pregnant females, or females with young, learn to avoid the roads, even closed ones, and that forces them into marginal habitat," he says. Just the kind of habitat that often fails to support a species on the brink of extinction.


Among other specifics, Sprengel urgs Stimson toward a "total road density standard," which is a limit not on the amount of roads remaining open, but on total roads built. Sprengel says Stimson wouldn't agree to such limits, and within the CA, "They are retaining options for a whole host of activities."


For instance, the CA specifies "effective security areas" -- zones 2,500 acres or larger maintained without active roads or high levels of human activity, where bear can hide. Sprengel says the CA allows Stimson to move those areas after three years, a practice he calls, "completely unsubstantiated by science."


Opp defends the concept, saying that those areas would not be moved until adjacent logged lands recover and provide suitable cover.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Suzanne Audette is writing her agency's biological opinion of the proposal. The Endangered Species Act mandates such an opinion anytime the Forest Service finds its activities may impact a protected species, which, in this case, it did. During its own biological assessment, Forest Service biologists found that the Stimson project was likely to adversely effect protected populations of grizzly bear, caribou, gray wolf, lynx and bull trout.


Audette says the CA itself is probably not legally binding, but she is including it in the biological opinion to make it more so. Should the project go forward and changes occur during the process -- like Stimson ignoring the provisions of the CA -- then, she says, her agency could step in.


When asked if she thinks humans could continue to access critical remaining habitat such as the caribou and grizzly bear management units and expect those species to adjust, Audette answers, "No. I would say no. The more we nickel and dime habitat, fragment it, it's certainly at a cost to the species." She goes on to say that, "If you look within the boundary of the grizzly bear management unit, the Stimson land represents one of several instances where habitat will be lost. The cumulative effect is what's important."





Why no land swap?


A land swap would allow the Forest Service or some independent entity to trade Stimson other lands elsewhere for those in this prime wildlife habitat. But, Sprengel says, Stimson flatly refused the idea.


District Ranger Gonzalez says in the winter of 1998, "The Forest Service and Stimson talked over the possibility of an exchange." They looked over several public parcels that Stimson could accept in a swap, but then the process suddenly halted.


"Stimson wrote us a letter," Gonzalez says, "documenting their concern about not being able to acquire below-ground mineral rights," for the prime habitat property they would trade away. When Stimson came into ownership of the land, rights for oil and gas were not attached. The Forest Service is prohibited from swapping their lands for lands without all rights.


Sprengel says something doesn't make sense. He called Keith Frank, of Burlington Resources in Midland, Texas. Burlington owns the below-ground rights to Stimson's land and, according to Sprengel, Frank commented positively concerning the sale of those rights.


Opp says that buying such rights is expensive and equals a critical outlay of funds, funds possibly lost should any environmental organizations appeal the plans to complete such a land swap.


Sprengel is convinced Opp understands the importance of ANILCA and the legal precedent Stimson could set. If Stimson wins in court, any private landowner might force the government to provide access across public lands. With easily tens of thousands of parcels of private lands surrounded by public lands in this country, Sprengel fears that a landscape with few intact wildlife habitats will soon have many fewer.


Opp denies his company is looking to set any national precedent if it prevails using ANILCA in court, saying, "Our company resources are not infinite, and we have to use those resources wisely."


Stimson is currently logging other road-accessible properties within portions of the bear recovery unit and very near the caribou recovery area. On a recent drive through those lands, Opp pointed out trees left standing to act as shelter for wildlife. Clearly logging had occurred, and the familiar visual impacts of battered trees and ground-up soil were present, but within each acre grew many trees. The old growth was gone, but dead snags had been left for wildlife.


"There's no denying this is industrial timberland," says Opp. "We're managing it to provide commodities and goods. It's not pristine, and it never will be." But he seemed proud of what he saw as a model for future logging practices.


"I think the public gets caught up on the aesthetic rather than the scientific," says Opp. "If nature does it, it's okay, but if man does it, it's wrong. A clearcut has the same effects as a major windstorm, or wildfire, but with some benefits to man." He subscribes wholeheartedly to the philosophy of Patrick Moore, who is, quite surprisingly, co-founder of Greenpeace. Moore wrote the book Green Spirit, in which he supports the practice and biological sustainability of clearcutting forests, which he calls the making of "temporary meadows."


Frustration rises in Opp's voice when he speaks of the environmental community in general: "Environmentalists are not held accountable for their comments or actions. We have to live with what we do on the ground, but they don't seem to answer to anyone with the claims they make. They have to evolve like everyone else. The extreme tactics of 20 years ago aren't working anymore."


Sprengel has this to say about Stimson's current forest practices: "It's almost a throwback to the mid-1980s," a time when environmentalists say the American landscape suffered at the hands of industrialists empowered by then-President Ronald Reagan. Sprengel points out that Opp managed lands for Plum Creek Timber Company, before they sold lands to Stimson, and Plum Creek's environmental legacy is well documented across the Northwest where even conservative politicians have been known to curse their past logging practices.


"Dwight was responsible for doing those square mile clearcuts that basically litter Pend Oreille County," Sprengel says. "Massive clearcuts where they'd log right down to the stream banks."


Opp still defends the practice. "Plum Creek did the best they could at the time with the science they had," he says. He adds that current practice calls for few clearcuts and rarely would they be 100 acres or larger.





whose property rights?


Paul Hirt is a professor of history at Washington State University in Pullman. He says this debate concerns not only the environment but private property rights, and in some circles there is a "quasi-Biblical" idea that private property has always existed.


That's false, he adds, "Land existed from time immemorial, but private property is a social construction."


He goes on to say that, "In the 19th century, we had a much more unregulated free market capitalistic society that emphasized private property ownership. But with the rise of the industrial revolution, we sort of got a new world with tons of social problems due to the unrestrained exercise of liberty caused by those with wealth."


Hirt says that unrestrained society created an unstable economy, social conflict and tremendous environmental problems. "Americans have since incrementally called on government to intervene in support of the common good," says Hirt.


Such a call came in the late-1800s with the National Forest Organics Act, in which Congress gave authority to the president to set aside forest lands -- lands, Hirt says, meant to be managed for the common good.


Recently, the Idaho Panhandle National Forest decided to produce an Environmental Impact Statement, like the one previously completed by the Colville Forest, before giving the Stimson road project further consideration. The federally mandated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's biological opinion could result in a "Jeopardy Call," which would stop the project, saying the Forest Service, through granting such easement, would endanger protected species and break federal law. Or, the opinion could determine that the access requested by Stimson has no adverse effects on protected species, allowing the project to move forward.


The biological opinion is due out at any time, and no matter the outcome, it will serve as further comment on our country's contemplation of priorities -- economy or environment.





Spokane resident Patrick M. Murphy is a writer/director/cameraman for broadcast and print projects around the world. He won an Emmy for his 1991 documentary on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of Alaska, including its Porcupine caribou herd migration.

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