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June 29, 2000

Study: Narrow buffers may be enough

Journal Staff Reporter

Some good news for both the timber industry and wildlife: narrow buffers of trees left along both sides of streams in clearcut areas may provide sufficient habitat to sustain some species.

An aerial view of a stream with 50-foot buffers in a 100-acre clearcut area. According to a study, narrow buffers appear to provide adequate habitat for some wildlife.

This news is among the preliminary results of a study under way by the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington.

Launched in 1991, the $1 million study showed that the number and variety of animals using areas closest to streams two years before timber harvesting varied only slightly two years after clearcutting whether the buffers were 50 feet wide or 100 feet wide.

"It's fair to say my colleagues and I were very surprised that such a skinny little buffer would function as well as it has," said Stephen West, associate professor of forest resources at UW. West is the lead researcher for the Western Washington portion of the first study ever conducted in the state to compare buffer sizes and their effects on amphibians, birds, small mammals and bats. The study did not include fish.

The study, which monitored riparian habitats in both Eastern and Western Washington, was mostly paid for by the state's Timber, Fish, Wildlife program and the Department of Natural Resources. However, private sector members -- including Weyerhaeuser, Plum Creek Timber Co. and the Washington Forest Protection Association -- pitched in after the Western Washington portion lost its funding in 1993 due to state budget cuts.

West said it's too early to tell whether narrower buffers would retain species permanently. More observation is needed.

"It's not over now," he said. "The study was done immediately before harvesting and immediately after; now we'd like to sample that snapshot again to see if the pattern holds."

Other surveys this year, 10 years from now and when the forest is re-established in about 12 to14 years, must be done to make an accurate assessment, West said.

A variety of buffer widths are now used in Washington. For instance, Washington Forest Practices regulations restrict logging within 25- to 100-foot buffers on state and private lands; while state lands managed under Habitat Conservation Plans require buffers of 100 feet.

Even more strict, the Forest and Fish Plan guidelines set earlier this year recommend buffers of 90 to 200 feet, depending on the area. West said if the study results stand the test of time, riparian buffers of half those widths could be left without cost to some wildlife.

Cheryl Quade, co-chair of DNR and the Timber Fish and Wildlife Program's Landscape and Wildlife Advisory Group, said the results of the study are exciting, but won't likely drive new policies.

"Salmon are driving all current regulations on buffers, and the study doesn't consider fish," Quade said.

"The exciting part is that the results look good for the moment -- it's a step in the right direction. But before any regulatory changes or definite conclusions, we'd have to observe wildlife 10 years post-harvest."

West said the latest results conclude Phase I of the study. He is now gearing up for the next round of observations -- which means securing more grants.

Copies of the full report are available from the Department of Natural Resources. Call the department at (360) 902-1400 for more information on how to obtain a copy.

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