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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

ARCATA FWO: Landmark Van Eck Forest Safe Harbor Agreement to Benefit Northern Spotted Owls

Region 8, May 12, 2009
The Van Eck is used for multiple uses -- for commerical timber harvest, for storing carbon and selling carbon credits, and now, thanks to a Safe Harbor Agreement with the Service, the Van Eck is expected to grow enough habitat to support up to five northern spotted owls. (Photo Courtesy of the Pacific Forest Trust.
The Van Eck is used for multiple uses -- for commerical timber harvest, for storing carbon and selling carbon credits, and now, thanks to a Safe Harbor Agreement with the Service, the Van Eck is expected to grow enough habitat to support up to five northern spotted owls. (Photo Courtesy of the Pacific Forest Trust. - Photo Credit: n/a
The Van Eck is currently home to one owl pair nicknamed Arnold and Maria, after the state’s First Couple. Gov. Schwarzenegger acquired some of the forests’ carbon emissions reductions. (photo: USFWS)
The Van Eck is currently home to one owl pair nicknamed Arnold and Maria, after the state’s First Couple. Gov. Schwarzenegger acquired some of the forests’ carbon emissions reductions. (photo: USFWS) - Photo Credit: n/a
The 2,200-acre Van Eck Forest lies amidst California's Redwood Curtain and is home to one spotted owl pair. under the SHA, as many as five owl pairs could ultimately use the forest. (Map courtesy Pacific Forest Trust)
The 2,200-acre Van Eck Forest lies amidst California's Redwood Curtain and is home to one spotted owl pair. under the SHA, as many as five owl pairs could ultimately use the forest. (Map courtesy Pacific Forest Trust) - Photo Credit: n/a

by Matt Baun , Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office
In Humboldt County, California, along the Redwood Coast lies the 2,200-acre Van Eck Forest.  It could easily stand-in for any of the fabled forests in classic children’s literature. All of the essential offerings are there: gigantic trees, mysterious animals, intriguing sounds, enchanting scents and, most of all, beauty and wonder at every turn. 

There are, in fact, a lot of stories that the Van Eck Forest could tell. For example, this is the site of the Van Eck Forest Project – a program that will permanently reduce more than a half-million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over a 100-year period.   The Van Eck became the very first emissions reductions project registered and certified under the rigorous standards adopted by the California Air Resources Board to help the state meet its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals.

But the Van Eck has another story to tell – and like its climate cooling initiative, this one also is  guaranteed to get better with time thanks to a recent – and unprecedented -  90-year Safe Harbor Agreement (SHA).  The agreement will ensure that additional habitat for the threatened northern spotted owl will be created; and then, conserved in perpetuity.

“The Van Eck SHA will aide in the recovery one of the most iconic species in the country,” said Mike Long, field supervisor for the Service’s Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office, and one of the SHAs negotiators.  “The agreement is a win for owls, a win for the landowner, and win for reducing greenhouse gasses.”

Safe Harbor 101

A Safe Harbor Agreement is a voluntary conservation tool available to private landowners.  Under the program, landowners commit to managing their property for the benefit of species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Landowners are required to follow a management plan that they help create, and in return, are able to conduct their operations with a high degree of certainty regarding future regulatory restrictions that might arise due to the increased presence of endangered species.  The Service provides these assurances to the landowner when management will provide a “net conservation benefit” to the species.

Any non-federal landowner is eligible to enroll into the SHA program. The first SHA ever signed was in 1995 between the Service and an owner of a golf course who wanted to protect red cockaded woodpecker.   Since then, the Service has negotiated 73 SHAs with several different types of landowner including individual families, states, state agencies, tribes, county agencies, corporations, partnerships, and universities.

Under SHAs, the landowner will implement a plan that enhances a species or its habitat over a specified period of time.   That time period depends on the amount of time required to achieve conservation benefits for that particular species and habitat.  After that term, the landowner can return the land to its initial “baseline” condition, which would be clearly defined and agreed upon prior to the SHA being signed.

Nationally, SHAs are catching on among private landowners.Of the 73 agreements that exist today, 54 of them have been signed in the last five years.  The Service has long recognized the importance of species conservation on private lands because more than two-thirds of all the threatened and endangered species in the country spend all or part of their lives on privately-owned land.

 “Given the importance of private lands in endangered species recovery, these SHAs are very effective conservation tools,” said John Hunter, a wildlife biologist who worked on the Van Eck SHA for the Service’s Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office (FWO).  “SHAs provide a good example of how partnerships with private landowners can provide both significant conservation benefit while at the same time meeting the particular needs of individual land managers and owners

Van Eck: Showcasing Multi-Use

The Van Eck SHA was negotiated with the Pacific Forest Trust (PFT), an organization that manages the forest for its owner – the Fred M. van Eck Forest Foundation.  As the Foundation’s forest manager, PFT’s mission is to conserve America’s working forests for all their public benefits – wood, water, wildlife and a well-balanced climate. This includes generating revenue —which the Foundation donates to Purdue University — by stewarding the forest for economic, as well as environmental, returns.

PFT has taken the sustainable forestry approach to new and exciting levels in recent years. The Van Eck is a working forest where timber is harvested and sold at market. A working forest conservation easement on the property ensures that it stays a well-managed working forest and is protected from development or conversion to non-forest uses. The conservation easement also guides the sustainable production of timber and ensures management for an older, more natural forest. The easement calls for the restoration of the forest’s stocking, yielding increasing timber and restoring the forest overall.

PFT makes a profit for the Foundation from its innovative management of the forest, demonstrating the synergy of restoration, forestry and profitability. But timber harvest isn’t the only source of revenue that PFT pursues for the Foundation.  PFT has found a way to make money by keeping trees in the forests as well as by harvesting them.  Forests serve as critical “carbon sinks.” Trees use photosynthesis to absorb and store carbon, safely sequestering greenhouse gas pollution from the atmosphere. When landowners restore their forests, they also restore these forests’ carbon stocks, yielding significant climate benefits. In doing so, they can sell credits for carbon emissions reduction to those who need to reduce their “carbon footprint.”

“Today’s forest landowners are under more economic pressure than ever. They love the land, and are looking for new revenue sources that can help them keep their forests as forests – rather than having to sell or liquidate their timber,” said Laurie Wayburn, president and co-founder of the Pacific Forest Trust.

The Van Eck Forest Project demonstrates that conserving and restoring forests can generate significant new financial returns for landowners, while providing essential products and eco-services for the public like sustainably harvested wood, clean water, wildlife habitat and a well-balanced climate.”

In an age of climate change, with its the inevitable new regulations and policies, there is likely to be a growing interest in utilizing carbon banks to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere similar to what can be found in the Van Eck Forest.    In fact, there already is considerable interest in these commodities.  According to the World Bank, the global aggregate carbon market was valued at more than $60 billion in 2007.

On the environmental side of the climate equation, PFT, through its policy, demonstration and market work to include forests in California’s pioneering regulatory system under its “cap” on CO2 emissions, has carved out a unique reputation for being a leader in environmental stewardship of working forests.

Now, with the SHA in place, the PFT is championing the cause of the northern spotted owl, and they are demonstrating that doing so is perfectly consistent with sustainable timber harvest and climate change goals.

The way the Van Eck SHA is structured around a permanent conservation easement, PFT is committed to managing the Van Eck Forest so that it will be able to provide additional owl habitat over the next 90 years. Safe Harbor Agreements traditionally allow for a forest to be returned to baseline conditions when the agreement term ends. But when the Van Eck SHA term expires in the year 2098, the easement ensures the forest and its spotted owl habitat created during the SHA term will be conserved in perpetuity.

 In basic terms most of the forest continues to be selectively harvested while some areas are off limits.  The SHA gives precise boundaries for areas that won’t be logged when owls are nearby or nesting, as well as indicating areas that will remain accessible for harvest as more owls are attracted to the property.  

The easement’s terms, consistent with the SHA goals, calls for older forests, the necessary habitat for owls, to increase significantly over time, and it will create an opportunity for more owls to move into the forest.  Owls have been spotted in the forest recently, creating an “activity center” although no nests are there.   Under the SHA, enough habitat is expected to be created to support up to five owl pairs. 

Negotiating the Hurdles

Each SHA that the Service negotiates differs depending on the characteristics of the property, the species associated with it; and, of course, the landowner.

The Van Eck SHA is unprecedented and unique in many respects.  Negotiating all the fine details to ensure the SHA would pass legal muster proved challenging at times, according to Long of the Arcata FWO. 

He noted that at 90-years, the term of the Van Eck SHA is the maximum SHA term  the Service provides, and that  such a long term wouldn’t be granted without careful consideration.

“We simply do not know what is in store for the northern spotted owl in the next 10 years, let alone the next 90 years,” said Long.  “Because the landowner will be actively harvesting timber for 90 years, we needed to ensure that an agreement would have long-term benefits for the owl.”

In the end, the Service approved the 90-year term and the protections and habitat benefits for the owl that were structured into the deal.

The conservation easement on the property was a major factor in the decision, with its assurances the forest would be permanently conserved and managed to create optimal conditions for spotted owl habitat.

“We faced hurdles and there were minor bumps along the way,” said Long.  “But I was adamant that we find a way to make the SHA work – not just because it could help with recovery of spotted owls - but also because the project had such great potential to benefit everybody involved, and could provide an example for similar projects to follow in its tracks.  We rolled up our sleeves, did some more brainstorming with PFT, and came up with an approach that worked for each of us.  I congratulate the Van Eck Foundation and the Pacific Forest Trust for what they accomplished." 

Van Eck: A model for others?

Some observers think there will be lessons for other landowners in Northern California who have owls on their land, but there is also some thought that the Van Eck SHA will encourage more land owners throughout the country to look what can be accomplished through SHAs, using the Van Eck agreement as a model. 

“This Safe Harbor Agreement is an innovative example of how a private landowner and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can work together to bring about meaningful and lasting conservation changes,” says Ren Lohoefener, Director of the USFWS Pacific Southwest Region. “This SHA can be a model for other landowners and timber companies in Northern California.”

Perhaps more than anywhere else in the northern spotted owl’s range, the redwood country in California’s Humboldt and Mendocino counties represent a good fit for SHAs.  

One reason for this is that land ownership in this region includes large numbers of non-industrial landowners, with ownerships of several hundered to more than ten thousand acres.  Elsewhere in the spotted owl’s range, large swaths of forestland are controlled by the federal government who are not eligible for SHAs.   Many of the larger timberland owners in the redwood region have found that tools such as Habitat Conservation Plans or Candidate Conservation Agreements are more suitable for their particular management and conservation needs.

Another reason why the redwood zone in northern California makes good sense for spotted owl SHAs has to do with the rapid growth rates and high productivity of these forests.  Redwood trees typically reach commercial harvest size and achieve suitable habitat characteristics much quicker than the Douglas-fir and pine forests found in dryer, more inland areas of California.  Thus, a net conservation benefit for the owl can be achieved quicker, while at the same time providing both a steady supply of harvestable trees for market and forest habitat for owls.  

If the Van Eck Forest model is emulated, a landowner may actually be able to send more timber per acre to market – and perhaps even capitalize on better prices due to increased operational flexibility.    The land owner also receives the peace of mind that comes from knowing that they are contributing to spotted owl conservation and reducing greenhouse gases while at the same time not having to worry about future ESA restrictions. And if they structure the SHA around a conservation easement, they may qualify for tax credits as well.

Armed with a measure of protection from regulatory surprises, landowners who currently do not have owls on their land may be more inclined to adopt forestry practices that provide safe harbor for spotted owls.  Without these assurances from the Service, some land owners may be hard-pressed to see the value in attracting species to their property if they come bundled with potentially restrictive ESA regulations.

Signed in August of 2008, it is still too early to say what the ultimate legacy of the Van Eck Forest SHA will be, though it is certain to benefit owl recovery in some way.    The goal, of course, is to have additional nesting owl pairs in the Van Eck Forest.

This past winter and spring, PFT recently conducted field surveys to see if any additional owls have joined the pair currently seen in the forest.  It appears that the existing owls -- nicknamed Arnold and Maria, after the state’s First Couple (Gov. Schwarzenegger acquired some of the forests’ carbon emissions reductions), -- still appear to have the forest to themselves.

Indeed, this is the first year of a long-term conservation effort, and owl habitat develops relatively slowly – even in the ideal growing conditions of California’s north coast.  Yet, there is a very real sense among those inside and outside the Service that the story of the Van Eck Forest will keep getting better with time and, one-day, achieve a storybook ending for the owls.

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On the Web:
Safe Harbor: Good for Spotted Owls, Good for Landowners (.pdf)
USFWS Fact Sheet: Safe Harbor Agreements for Private Landowners (.pdf)

 

Contact Info: Matt Baun, 530-842-5763, matt_baun@fws.gov