Montana's threatened bull trout are at a "crossroads," says Than Hitt, the Ecology Center's co-director for ecosystem defense. In a few weeks, Plum Creek Timber Company will release the draft of its Native Fish Habitat Conservation Plan (NFHCP). When completed under a provision of the Endangered Species Act, the plan will guide management of more than 1.4 million acres of bull trout habitat in Montana for the next 30 years. Because of the area covered and the plan's duration, "They hold the future of Montana's native fish in their hands in a lot of cases," Hitt says.
At stake is whether Plum Creek's plan will incorporate the most recent bull trout research, some of it conducted by company biologists, or whether the plan will essentially enable Plum Creek to continue its historical strategy of liquidating its timber assets as quickly as possible. "We want to respect the fact that Plum Creek is in the business of extracting timber from private land," Hitt says. On the other hand, the company "shouldn't do anything to contribute to the decline of bull trout," says Hitt. "That's our natural heritage."
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt trumpets HCPs as a way to protect species and allow private property owners to continue developing their lands at the same time. It's clear what the landowners gain: Babbitt's controversial "no surprises" policy assures Plum Creek that it will have no further liability under the Endangered Species Act for the 30-year duration of the plan, even if the plan fails to reverse the bull trout's decline.
|Photo by Chad Harder|
"How are they gonna keep a grizzly population in the Missions?" asks Swan Valley resident Brian Parks. "Because of the habitat destruction through clearcuts, evolution is over."
Already Hitt says there are indications that Plum Creek's fish plan won't include the most recent research findings. Hitt is concerned that the company "is not looking at habitat on the right scale. They should look at the entire watershed." Plum Creek representatives were not available for comment, but the company web site claims that streamside buffer zones are adequate to prevent sedimentation and keep water cool enough for bull trout.
This, Hitt says, is not enough. A report issued by the Montana Bull Trout Scientific Group states that timber harvest in upper elevations in fact has a significant impact on water quality downstream where bull trout live and spawn. High road density anywhere in a watershed means fewer fish in the stream below. To complicate the picture even further, recent research shows that bull trout favor stream sections that receive extra infusions from groundwater. "Building a road through a groundwater source could be more disruptive" than putting it somewhere else, Hitt notes.
Plum Creek likes to point out that state and federal lands cover more acres of bull trout habitat than its own holdings. But especially in the Swan watershed, Plum Creek controls large parts of several drainages that are identified as "core areas," meriting high levels of protection by the Bull Trout Recovery Team.
What worries Hitt and some Swan Valley residents like Brian Parks is that Plum Creek has been heavily logging the upper reaches of these core areas before the HCP goes into effect. Looking across the valley to the Woodward Creek drainage, Parks points to a large, fresh clear-cut nearly at the crest of the Mission Mountains. Several roads and many vertical bulldozer tracks braid the mountainside. "Last winter there was logging going on all around us," Parks says. "They had lights set up and were working all night. You could hardly sleep."
Along with liquidating its trees, Plum Creek is liquidating its best land as well. The company is currently offering 110,000 acres, much of it prime waterfront property and most of it bull trout habitat, on the real estate market. Out of 22,000 acres sold so far, over 16,000 acres were bought by public agencies or conservation groups. But with prices over $10,000 an acre, some parcels are likely to go to developers.
The Montana Bull Trout Scientific Group calls industrial and rural development in the Flathead and Swan watersheds "high risk" for fish restoration. Plum Creek promotes a company-created land use plan to address development of the timber lands it sells, but it is not clear how these measures will be implemented. "Development is not on the radar screen of the HCP," says the Ecology Center's Than Hitt, "and that's a failure."