Agency stumped after sea bird's habitat taken

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Two federal agencies are at loggerheads over a decision to remove five old-growth trees from the habitat that supports a threatened sea bird during breeding season.

The U.S. Forest Service cut the massive trees — one was 238-feet tall — in late April at the Sunshine Bar Campground near Port Orford in southwest Oregon. The threatened marbled murrelet nests in the campground, though it's unknown if any were in the trees at the time they fell.

The agency generally must get a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take a tree during the breeding season. But Fish and Wildlife did not know the trees were gone until getting a tip in late July.

"We're still trying to figure out the rationale," said Jim Thrailkill, a field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Forest Service officials declined phone interviews this week. In written responses Friday, the agency said the trees were located near a campsite and at high risk of losing limbs or falling. Of the five hazard trees that were removed, the Forest Service said, one was completely dead and the other four had dead tops.

"Because of its design and layout, it would have been difficult to close the campground to the public, so waiting to remove hazard trees would have put the public at risk," the Forest Service wrote.

As for why it did not get approval from Fish and Wildlife, the agency said guidelines written for hazard trees in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest are not compatible with newer, regional Forest Service rules regarding hazard trees in campgrounds. It said it is now "working closely" with Fish and Wildlife to address the issue.

The marbled murrelet was listed as threatened in 1992 and habitat protection has meant less logging in the Northwest. The tiny sea birds venture inland to raise their young and — like the spotted owl — depend on old-growth forests for nesting.

The volunteer environmental group Friends of the Elk River reported the habitat removal to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The group's founder, Jim Rogers, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a Feb. 7 letter from the Forest Service in which Powers Ranger District engineer Robin McAlpin wrote to District Ranger Jessie Berner about the need for a refresher class for fallers who cut big trees. Sunshine Bar Campground is mentioned as the site.

McAlpin wrote that some "questions come to mind," including how Friends of the Elk River would take the news and whether threatened and endangered species protections were a hurdle.

"They were aware that if they let this get out, there would be trouble and they might not be able to do it," Rogers said.

The Forest Service acknowledged that training took place at Sunshine Bar. It said, however, the removal of hazard trees was the priority and it turned into a training session.

Thrailkill said Thursday his office has had preliminary talks with the Forest Service, and must fact check the information received. The Forest Service said it's implementing a new policy in which the district ranger makes a judgment call on hazard trees at campgrounds. Liability is an issue, he was told, and a district ranger's options include pruning, topping, tree removal and closing sites within the campground.

"It's still very concerning that these large trees were cut," Thrailkill said.

Rogers, a 71-year-old forester, said at least four of the trees could have had their tops removed rather than felled, and the public have would have been safe.

"They have to certify people as being trained to fall big trees, and so these trees were handy for them to cut," he said. "They didn't want to top them because that wouldn't solve their need for big trees to cut down."

Thrailkill declined to say if his agency would pursue a penalty against the Forest Service. He said prevention is his focus.

"A lot of our discussions have been framed around what kind of communication needs to happen internally within the forest to avoid this type of thing happening again," he said.

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.