The future of nearly 9,000 acres—a quarter of the Lake Whatcom watershed—remains cloudy, as a simple policy decision by Whatcom County Council explodes into a broader angry debate over public parks and county management.
After hours of often rancorous and conspiracy-tinged testimony far into the night, council moved to consider a proposal by council member Sam Crawford to investigate acquiring a slight smaller chunk of land, “removing from the request the areas that are still harvestable with little impact.” Crawford said the suggestions were made by timber industry interests and were received favorably by supporters of the land transfer.
The lands are “relatively contiguous areas of stable landscape, all substantial areas out of the Lake Whatcom Watershed, and some areas within the watershed with a significant distance from the lake,” Crawford explained, and did not involve future road construction that would cross areas with potential high critical-areas impacts.
If approved, even in diminished form of 7,000 acres, council would create the largest county park in the state, and—in future years—a huge unbroken old growth forest within cycling distance of 200,000 residents.
It seems that decision must wait. Hours of public comment and lingering questions about the scope and costs of acquiring thousands of acres for use as a county park delayed decisions by County Council until the late evening Tuesday. Conservatives rallied late opposition to the transfer of selected state forest lands into county management.
Yet the votes dp appear to be there to acquire the land, if the matter could be brought to a vote.
Sometimes the impossible just takes longer.
Ironically, the money to acquire the land has already been spent—a cost to taxpayers of about $34 per acre. By comparison, the City of Bellingham has spent about $16,000 per acre to acquire and protect just 1,600 acres in the watershed.
The forest preserve park plan is the culmination of a process spanning decades on the management of timber lands on the steep unstable slopes of Lake Whatcom, drinking water reservoir for more than half of the county’s population.
A landslide in 1983 raised serious questions about continued logging operations on those slopes. The slide originated at an old logging site high in the hills, where rains and snowmelt collapsed a badly built logging road, sweeping tons of debris into the lake. A revised forest management plan offered in the following decade by the state Dept. of Natural Resources still proposed carving miles of new roads into those unstable slopes.
An alternative involves the creation of a forest preserve—an action outside the scope of DNR, which manages state forested trust lands for the financial benefit of trust beneficiaries. In the case of lands around Lake Whatcom, the trust beneficiaries are largely the county and its schools. Yet, from a policy perspective, the county and many of its schools have reasoned that the protection against landslides is at least equal to the potential for lost revenues.
A persistent outlier has always been the Mount Baker School District, one of the principal beneficiaries of revenues from logging these Lake Whatcom Forest Board lands. That district’s school board has actively opposed forest board land restrictions and have been advocates for logging to generate money for schools. Though supportive of logging, the board’s relentless focus was on revenue for education, for children.
In a technical sense, the lands already belong to Whatcom County. Lands ravaged by logging fell into county ownership as bankruptcy proceedings following the last century’s Great Depression. Struggling counties were ill-equipped to manage these deforested acres. Lands were transferred to the state agency to be managed as trusts. The law that governed the transfer and the trusts also provided a mechanism that counties could request the lands back, provided counties continued public benefit and access to the lands through the creation of parks.
In 2008, the Whatcom County Executive explored such a request, a reconveyance, with then-head of DNR, Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland. That discussion and the agreements that followed initiated an audit of the value of Lake Whatcom Forest Board lands, followed by the grouping and blocking of those forests for better management and better value in the event the transfer was approved by council. In the exchange, DNR received parcels suitable for logging and road building. The county received lands less suitable to logging operations.
In June, County Council signaled in a 5-2 vote they were ready to consider the final phase of the transfer.
Of keen interest to the council in their decision was the question of whether the trust beneficiaries who had expressed an interest in being made financially whole—notably the Mount Baker School District—could in fact be made whole. That opportunity became reality earlier this year through agreements between the district and the Whatcom Land Trust and private donors, who established a half-million dollar trust that would compensate the district for the loss of timber revenues. School board members approved and praised the deal, which places money in their hands immediately rather than following a protracted timber cut.
In particular, the agreement was crucial for the support of Council President Kathy Kershner, who considered her commitment to the school district goal imperative. She also praised the agreement.
The following month, July, the state Board of Natural Resources met to consider and approve the county’s interest in completing the reconveyance.
“A new face of opposition showed up at this Olympia meeting,” Conservation Northwest Executive Director Mitch Friedman explained, “showing striking resemblance to the angry and irrational personalities and invective that opposed the South Fork Park and frequently engages in county growth issues.”
Over their objections, a park was created earlier this summer on public lands along the South Fork of the Nooksack River. The lands had been held by the county for that exact purpose since the 1960s.
In intervening weeks, the group had successfully lobbied Kershner, turning her from her original position in conditional support of the proposal to one now firmly opposed to it. Sensing opportunity to destroy the reconveyance initiative, this group similarly sought to turn Crawford and other council members who had—like Kershner—supported moving forward last June.
“The amount of harvestable acreage that is being lost through the development of this park is minimal when compared to the total harvestable acreage for the county as a whole and is far less than the amount of harvestable land that is being lost to residential development in the county,” David Wallin commented.
Wallin is a professor of environmental sciences at Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University.
“In addition to the water quality benefits, this new park will create extraordinary and easily accessible recreational opportunities,” he said. “This will be the crown jewel in the county park system.”
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