Three species are receiving special consideration in the state’s plan to turn the Elliott State Forest in to a living laboratory.
State officials are seeking public input on the forest’s draft habitat conservation plan, the document which lays out how the research program might impact the forest’s endangered and threatened species by quantifying the possible “take,” the legal term for harm to the animals or their habitat.
“We’ll be asking the sort of core question: When we implement these activities on the landscape over the next 80 years, what are the potential effects that they could have on those species, and then what minimization and or mitigation measures need to be put in place to offset the potential of take to occur under the Endangered Species Act,” said Troy Rahmig, a consultant hired by the state to design the plan.
The plan is one of many steps ahead for the forest’s future. In December, a panel of state leaders signaled their support for moving forward with a plan to put the state forest into the care of Oregon State University for research purposes.
That OSU idea has been the leading blueprint for the future of the forest since the state’s highest court ruled in 2018 it couldn’t be sold to private hands. Since then, university and state leaders have been working with the goal of transferring the forest to the university, which will launch a multi-track forest harvest and conservation research program.
But since the research plan will include some logging and other forest activities, it could impact some of the forest’s endangered species. The state and university need a federal permit before that can happen.
“Everything we do is in the service of covered species, and the HCP (habitat conservation plan) is very much a species-centric plan,” Rahmig said during a public information session about the plan last week.
In particular, the research could impact the habitats of the northern spotted owl, the marbled murrelet and the Oregon coast coho salmon.
Much of the habitat conservation plan considers how the university’s work might damage the animals’ habitat. Rahmig noted the estimates predict a “worst-case scenario” of potential impacts to the animals.
About a quarter of the habitat that could be suitable for spotted owls, for example, could be impacted by the research over the course of the 80-year permit. Between 5% and 9% of the murrelet’s occupied and potential habitat could be impacted, too.
The impact on salmon is a little harder to predict, according to Rahmig, since they’re not observed and counted the same way birds are.
According to the plan, it’s key to ensure rivers and streams have enough large wood to form pools for the forest’s three coho populations to live. To do that, forest leaders have plans for conservation areas around the forest’s streams and rivers to ensure there’s enough wood around to fall in.
“It’s pretty protective overall with fish to begin with,” Rahmig said. “We’re not asking for a large amount of take for coho. I would say take is very much minimized on coho, just by the design of the research.”
The plan also calls for the restoration of certain streams, reduction of certain forest roads and even possible beaver restoration projects in order to protect salmon from possible habitat damage.
As for the two bird species, the plan calls for a number of conservation measures, like seasonal restrictions on forest activities when the birds are nesting and commitments to maintain and expand the level of suitable habitat for the animals in the forest.
Rahmig said one other aspect of the habitat conservation plan is unique, compared to other similar plans he’s worked on: The university’s research itself is part of the conservation plan.
“It’s a very conservation-heavy project proposal, if I were to think about it that way,” Rahmig said. “There is a lot of conservation built in to the research design from the beginning.”
Notably, the plan doesn’t consider any special rules for the coastal marten, a rare, weasel-like carnivore found in Oregon and Northern California. Without the animals on the permit, OSU researchers and forest users won’t be allowed to impact them at all.
Rahmig said the animals could eventually be added to the permit when more is known about the population in the forest.
According to Katy Kavanaugh, one of the OSU faculty leading the research forest effort, some of that coastal marten research is already underway by the university.
“It’s definitely a species of interest to the college and our collaborators,” Kavanaugh said.
The plan as it stands isn’t set in stone. The Department of State Lands will hold another information session at 5:30 on June 3. The full draft plan and access to the information session is available on the state’s website at https://www.oregon.gov/dsl/Land/Pages/Elliott.aspx.
After the HCP is submitted and permits are issued, there are still more steps to take before the Elliott becomes a research forest, including management plans, public and tribal engagement and legislative action.