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Makah use oil spill settlement to protect marbled murrelet

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NEAH BAY, Wash. ? On July 22, 1991, a Japanese factory parts ship, the Tenyo Maru, collided with a Chinese freighter just off Cape Flattery on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula.

The Tenyo Maru eventually sank as a result of the accident, spilling 10,000 gallons of fuel oil into white waves of the blue Pacific and eventually coming ashore at nearby Neah Bay.

The result was an environmental catastrophe for the ecologically sensitive area, which has several endangered and other important species in the immediate area of the spill. Whole kelp beds were poisoned. Televised images of oil-slicked sea birds, including the endangered marbled murrelet, entered the nation's living rooms.

The property owner most immediately affected by the spill was the Makah tribe which had forged a living from their natural surroundings for thousands of years. Now, after 10 years of lawsuits and debate, the Makah are ready to use a portion of their settlement money to help restore the population of the marbled murrelet.

'It's estimated we lost 7 percent to 11 percent of the marbled murrelet population on the coast as a result of the spill,' tribal wildlife biologist Rob McCoy said in an interview with the Port Angeles Peninsula Daily News.

Specifically, the Makah have set aside a 278-acre parcel, most of it old growth or older second growth timber, on tribal lands to protect nesting sites of the endangered bird. The marbled murrelet is different from other sea birds, most of which nest on the rocks and trees along the shoreline.

Unlike other seafaring birds, this small bird often flies as far as 50 miles inland each evening to habitat among the old growth western red cedars and Douglas fir. Their migratory ways made it more difficult to protect their habitat than the other sea birds who needed only an immediate scrubbing of the coastline.

The Makahs are investing $1.4 million of the lawsuit settlement in an easement to protect a 278-acre parcel in the Waatch River Valley from logging, which represents about 10 percent of the tribe's economy. The money is meant to reimburse tribal logging operations for lost lumber revenue in the area in exchange for making the area off limits to any kind of timber harvest for the next 200 years.

John Arum, an attorney for the tribe said the whole process was very difficult. In addition to deciding on joint management with the state of Washington to oversee the $5 million from the shipowner's insurance settlement, the tribe had a protracted internal debate as to how best use the fund for environmental cleanup.

'It was finally decided that habitat acquisition was the best strategy for the fund,' Arum said.

David Sones, director of the Makah fisheries, credits tribal self-governance with the ability to protect the marbled murrelet's nesting habitat. Before the early 1990s, the Makah reservation was managed by the BIA which had a 'no-yield' policy when it came to managing the resources on the reservation.

That policy basically stated that timber would be harvested from one end of the reservation to the other and the cycle would be repeated on a 60- to 70-year timetable.

Sones said when land management was turned over to the tribe, Makahs developed a forest protection plan for the 30,000-acre reservation.

Part of the plan called for protecting 3,000-acre parcel of old growth that would be reviewed on a 10-year basis, according to economic need. Sones said the new 278-acre parcel would not be subject to a 10-year review and its protection is 'absolute' for the next two centuries.

'We're just lucky to have old growth areas to protect before it all got whacked down,' Sones said.

Though the 278-acre parcel is not contiguous with the 3,000 acres already in protection, its location has several other advantages. The protected site will sit next to a 175-foot protected riparian corridor on the Waatch River which is in turn next to an area that is protected for cultural preservation.

The cultural preservation site is an area where tribal members are allowed to take out materials for traditional crafts and activities such as red cedar canoes and has protected areas for ceremonies.

Additionally the tribe, with extensive cultural resources in the form of a museum and a natural resource department, will use some funds for a new community center.