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Safe Harbor Agreement Advances Northern Spotted Owl Conservation in Oregon
Joint announcement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Oregon Department of Forestry
September 3, 2010
Janet Lebson, USFWS, (503) 231-6179
Kevin Weeks, ODF, (503) 945-7427
Sara Magenheimer, NRCS, (503) 414-3250
Safe Harbor Agreement Advances Northern Spotted Owl Conservation and Offers Regulatory Assurances to Private Landowners
Federal and state agencies have reached a landmark agreement that assures private forest landowners can continue to manage for long-term, sustainable timber harvests while also enhancing northern spotted owl habitat.
The entirely voluntary statewide Safe Harbor Agreement features conservation efforts coupled with federal financial incentives and technical assistance to landowners.  This is the broadest effort in Oregon to enhance the contribution of non-federal lands to spotted owl recovery since the Pacific Northwest forest raptor was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1990.  The agreement is a coordinated effort among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Landowners who enter into the Safe Harbor Agreement will be able to develop or conserve spotted owl habitat, with the assurance that if the property eventually attracts owls, timber harvest or other activities could continue, as long as the land is managed to provide a net conservation benefit to the species.  The agreement is intended to encourage landowners to pursue conservation values while also deriving the economic return they need to continue to manage their land for a range of benefits.
“This Safe Harbor has the potential to be a pivot point in the northern spotted owl’s recovery in the State of Oregon,” said Paul Henson, State Supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office.  “Inviting more involvement from citizens and non-federal partners is just one way we’re addressing one of the Northwest’s biggest conservation challenges with pragmatic approaches to endangered species recovery.”
“This agreement gives much greater assurance to forestland owners and managers in Oregon’s spotted owl territory and will serve to increase participation, enhance protection, and stimulate productivity on these landscapes,” said Johnny Sundstrom, forest landowner and past President of the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts.  “Surely this is a win-win for all of us who care about these private, working-land forests and their crucial importance to our state.”
The three agencies will provide technical assistance to private forest landowners as they establish a balance between timber harvest to support local communities and the unique requirements of sustainable spotted owl habitats in the Northwest.
Working with local staff, landowners also have the opportunity to apply for financial incentives to support selected forest practices.  Participation in Safe Harbor on Oregon forestlands is accomplished through development of a stewardship agreement between the landowner and ODF.  A stewardship agreement is a voluntary written plan where a landowner agrees to meet the natural resource protection standards of the Oregon Forest Practices Act through alternate practices.
“Oregon’s policy is to promote a balance of environmental, economic, and social benefits from our forests,” said Marvin Brown, Oregon State Forester.  “Safe Harbor supports that balance.  It allows landowners to protect owl habitat, with the assurance that they can also continue to manage their land for other benefits.”
NRCS’ Healthy Forest Reserve Program is a voluntary conservation program under the 2008 Farm Bill established for the purpose of restoring and enhancing forest ecosystems. In Oregon, the focus of this program is to support private forest landowners to manage their land for sustainable, profitable timber harvests while promoting habitat for the threatened northern spotted owl.  Participating landowners will receive assurances under the Safe Harbor Agreement and are compensated for enrolling forests in permanent easements and agreeing to manage those lands using sustainable forest practices.  The program has been implemented in only eight states across the nation, with Oregon added in 2009. 
“Private landowners and the lands they manage are critical for the recovery of the northern spotted owl,” said Ron Alvarado, State Conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “In order to involve landowners, they must be able to effectively make a living on those lands.  This agreement allows landowners to manage their lands sustainably while also protecting an iconic western species, resulting in a positive outcome for Oregonians.”
Covering the range of the spotted owl throughout the state, the Safe Harbor Agreement is focused on forest landowners with 5,000 acres or less and has a 50-year duration.  In addition to special incentives provided under ODF and NRCS land stewardship programs, those who participate gain formal assurance from the Fish and Wildlife Service that they will not face future regulatory restrictions on the use of the land enrolled if they agree to improve its habitat value for spotted owls.
Here’s how it works: the voluntary agreements would encourage long-term conservation benefits such as extended timber harvest rotations, forest management strategies that develop spotted owl habitat characteristics, and maintenance of owl habitat conditions for the duration of the agreement and possibly beyond.  The agreement helps implement several recovery actions identified in the 2008 Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Plan related to encouraging habitat conservation on non-federal lands to benefit the owl. 
Toward the end of the agreement period in 2060, participating landowners have the option of continuing their conservation measures on the enrolled land, returning it to baseline conditions that existed at the beginning of the agreement, for example, by increasing commercial logging activities, or anything in between.
The main threats to the spotted owl are habitat loss and competition from barred owls, which are native to eastern North America but moved into the range of the spotted owl over the last century.  The most recent analysis of data on spotted owl demographics such as occupancy, survival, reproduction, and movement indicates that the owl continues to decline in seven of 11 study areas in Washington, Oregon, and California (populations are stationary in the other four).  The overall rangewide spotted owl population is declining at an average rate of nearly 3 percent per year.
There are currently three other Safe Harbor agreements for the spotted owl:  one signed in 2002 with Forster-Gill, Inc. covering 236 acres near the town of Blue Lake in northern California; a second signed in 2009 with the non-profit Pacific Forest Trust, a land conservation group that manages the 2,200-acre Van Eck Forest in Humboldt, Calif.; and a third, for the owl and the threatened marbled murrelet, signed in 2009 with Port Blakely Tree Farms covering 45,000 acres in Lewis and Skamania Counties in southwestern Washington.
Further information about the program and stewardship agreements is available from ODF. For additional information regarding assistance from the NRCS contact your local USDA Service Center or visit www.or.nrcs.usda.gov.

About the three public agencies
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov and in Oregon, http://www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/ 
NRCS—Helping people help the land. 
The Natural Resources Conservation Service provides leadership in a partnership effort to help people conserve, maintain, and improve our natural resources and environment.  For additional information, please visit the Oregon NRCS website at: www.or.nrcs.usda.gov
The Oregon Department of Forestry serves the people of Oregon by protecting, managing, and promoting stewardship of Oregon's forests to enhance environmental, economic, and community sustainability.  For additional information, please visit http://www.oregon.gov/ODF 

Frequently Asked Questions about Safe Harbor Agreements
What is a Safe Harbor agreement? 
A Safe Harbor agreement is a voluntary conservation tool for private landowners who wish to support recovery of plants and animals listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.  Safe Harbors are area- and species-specific agreements, though they are sometimes developed for more than one species with similar habitat needs.  They also can be specific to a single property owner or multiple landowners in a certain region.  For the latter, they are usually called programmatic Safe Harbor agreements.
What is the purpose of a Safe Harbor agreement?
Safe Harbor agreements are just one tool for enhancing endangered species conservation on private lands (other common tools advanced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are Habitat Conservation Plans and Partners for Fish and Wildlife projects).  Safe Harbor agreements can contribute significantly to the recovery of Endangered Species Act-listed species.  The most common threat to listed species is habitat loss and degradation.  More than two-thirds of all listed species in the country spend all or part of their lives on privately owned land.
How do Safe Harbor agreements work?
Under the program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with a landowner (along with other partners to the Safe Harbor agreement) to identify “baseline habitat conditions” for the property he or she wishes to enroll.  The Fish and Wildlife Service and landowner develop a management plan for the enrolled property, allowing for mutually agreed-upon uses that ultimately provide a “net conservation benefit” to the listed species.
In exchange for the landowner’s commitment to those conservation measures, the Fish and Wildlife Service provides formal assurance that the landowner will not be restricted from the uses identified in the management plan if the listed species is attracted to the enrolled property as a result of improved habitat conditions (though the landowner must maintain at least the baseline habitat conditions).  This means that some incidental take of individual listed species may potentially occur in return for the long term conservation benefit to the species overall.  The Fish and Wildlife Service carefully considers the potential level of incidental take when making the “net conservation benefit” determination at the onset of the agreement.
Toward the end of the agreement term, the landowner has the option of continuing their conservation measures on the enrolled land, returning it to baseline conditions that existed at the beginning of the agreement, or anything in between. 
Who is eligible to enroll in a Safe Harbor agreement?
Any non-federal landowner can be a party to a Safe Harbor agreement.  Existing agreements involve individual families, states, state agencies, tribes, county agencies, conservation organizations, businesses, and universities.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service often implements a Safe Harbor agreement in partnership with another government agency or organization that works directly with landowners on a local basis. 
How long do Safe Harbor agreements last?
Safe Harbor agreements have different durations, such as 10, 25, 50, or even 100 years, depending on the amount of time required to achieve conservation benefits for the particular species and habitat covered.  A Safe Harbor agreement also can be renewed for as long as the landowner and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mutually agree.
What happens if land enrolled in a Safe Harbor agreement is sold or ownership is transferred?  Does the agreement go with the sale or transfer?
If a landowner proposes to sell or give away lands enrolled in a Safe Harbor agreement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can allow the agreement and associated permit to continue to be in effect, providing the new owner agrees to become a party to the original agreement.
How many Safe Harbor agreements are there?
Since the first Safe Harbor agreement was signed in 1995, more than 400 landowners in 23 states and one U.S. territory have enrolled more than 4.3 million acres in 80 Safe Harbor agreements, benefitting 75 species listed under the Endangered Species Act.