Landowners express anger over state-mandated rules: State effort to help protect fish leads to dust-up over timber road rules

By Craig Welch
Seattle Times staff reporter

HARLEY SOLTES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Rancher John Kiesecker of Wauconda, Okanogan County, in hat and beard, and wife, Tree, listen intently during a meeting on the new rules.
TONASKET, Okanogan County, WA - 4/22/02 A revolt is simmering here over dirt-caked timber roads that curl like rope through private forest lands. Twice in the past month, nearly 1,000 cattlemen, constitutionalists and timber owners jammed meeting halls to vent over expensive new state mandates to fix private roads.

Some held signs scrawled with statements such as "Lawsuit, or Lock and Load" while others threatened not to let regulators on their land.

Their anger is directed at a new law requiring the state's 91,000 small-forest owners to map, and in many cases, upgrade private roads to save fish. Estimated cost: $375 million.

"It's ludicrous," said Joel Kretz, a rancher and forestland owner with 1,300 acres near tiny Wauconda, in northeastern Washington's Okanogan County. "Where are people supposed to get the money? Everybody's already on their lips."

The uproar is likely to spread across the state as other small forestland owners learn the implications of the state's new Road Maintenance and Abandonment Plan (RMAP) rules.

Crafted as part of the state's controversial Forest and Fish agreement, the rules are designed to repair fish-blocking culverts and stem runoff from forest roads that load waterways with sediment that smothers fish eggs, raises water temperature and alters stream courses.

"The magnitude of the problem is enormous," said Pat McElroy, director of regulatory programs for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "The roads issue is very, very important to meeting our obligations, and fundamental to improving salmon habitat and moving recovery forward."

The new rules were negotiated by state and local governments, a few Indian tribes and big timber companies such as Weyerhaeuser and Boise Cascade that recognized improving upstream fish habitat was essential to continued logging. That's because salmon, steelhead and bull trout have been listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

While timber companies were prepared to absorb the road repairs as a cost of doing business, the mandates extend to private land in some of the state's poorest counties.

For small-property owners whose land isn't near water, the RMAP rules may require little more than 20 minutes spent inventorying roads.

But owners of small forests near fish-bearing streams may be asked to spend thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars in some cases more than their timber is worth to improve roads.

"It's outrageous," said John Kiesecker, who owns 560 acres near Wauconda. "If I have to do anything, I'd have to log to pay for it, and I don't even want to log."

Mistrust of government

Nowhere are landowners more livid over the rules than in northeastern Washington, home to one of the state's highest concentrations of family-owned forestland and a place where tree-growing is less productive than in damp Western Washington.

Here, roads range from long driveways through tree-ringed cattle ranches, to forest roads that connect stands of ponderosa pine. Landowners often buy property after it has already been logged and have no plans to reap the cash benefits of second-growth timber for decades if at all.

And in the windswept valleys of the Okanogan, where mistrust of government is as common as four-wheel-drive, some landowners contend they first heard about the rule change in January, when they were told by letter they were to have begun submitting maps of their property "no later than Dec. 31, 2001."

HARLEY SOLTES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Rancher Les Kinney of Wauconda worries what the new road-maintenance rules might require for grass-covered roads on his ranch.
So incensed were property owners that at recent meetings, some passed out libertarian voting pamphlets and breast-pocket copies of the U.S. Constitution. One handout urged forest owners to have witnesses and take pictures when state regulators arrive at their doorstep.

On a small stage last week at a packed county fairgrounds meeting hall, one landowner earned applause when he suggested a new meaning for the acronym RMAP "Real Men Ain't Participating."

"I'm afraid somebody's going to get shot," rancher Kretz said.

Many here want to blame environmentalists. But environmentalists and some tribal members dropped out of the Forest and Fish negotiations and later sued, claiming the plan wouldn't actually protect fish.

Environmentalists fear DNR let the rage get out of hand and will use the uproar to dismantle valuable parts of fish protection.

"There's a tremendous amount of anxiety," said environmentalist Tim Coleman, executive director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group in Colville. "And I don't think the monkey should be put on the backs of small landowners.

"But the key is education, and DNR blew it. They were asleep at the switch."

Poor explanation?

DNR officials acknowledge they did a poor job explaining new rules to landowners.

"It could have been handled better," said DNR's McElroy. Anger "was allowed to grow without direct-management involvement. We didn't have people attending to the issue who understand how to manage something so complex."

DNR Commissioner Doug Sutherland attended one meeting in Okanogan and has promised to work with area landowners who have questions.

"We realize we need to step back and do more public outreach and education," said Gary Gideon, with DNR.

The agency and the original negotiators plan in coming months to seek changes to present to the Legislature in 2003. State officials are scrambling to find public money to help landowners.

Yet even while the state, federal government and utilities have spent millions in recent years helping agricultural landowners, small communities and even timber companies improve salmon habitat, "I've not been as successful as I would have liked," McElroy said.

Even DNR, which controls from 12,000 to 14,000 miles of roads on state land more than the state transportation department will have to upgrade those roads. It estimates that cost at more than $200 million.

The U.S. Forest Service also has agreed to upgrade its roads and up to 5,500 culverts in Washington and Oregon, though at its current pace the federal agency would never meet Washington's 15-year timetable.

The big timber companies were prepared for their own costs.

HARLEY SOLTES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Using horses, Don Super logs a small stand of trees surrounding the home of his brother Gary near Tonasket, Okanogan County.
"Our folks knew it was going to be a big-ticket item," said lobbyist Bill Wilkerson with the Washington Forest Protection Association, who represents the state's largest industrial-forest companies. "It was a cost they felt they could absorb."

But until the state has collected maps of forest roads from family-forest owners, determined the roads' condition and judged the likelihood that they could pollute nearby fish streams, it's impossible to say how many small-forest owners will have to pay.

For those who do, costs can quickly balloon. A cost-benefit analysis the state produced suggested road upgrades could cost $7,700 a mile. Simply abandoning a road could cost $5,500 a mile. State officials say new culverts for fish-bearing streams could run $20,000 or more.

So far, the state has hired consultants to leaf through county records to find owners of more than 500 acres of forestland. Those folks have been told they are to map, inventory and assess the condition of their roads on 20 percent of their land in each of the next five years. Landowners with smaller holdings have until 2005 to map all of their land.

All work must be completed by 2015.

So far, more than 1,500 landowners have submitted road-maintenance or abandonment plans. Anyone who requests a permit to log also has to agree to produce a plan.

For some, it's been painless.

"If you own 20 acres and it's flat ground and no water, there's a very simple form that's essentially a checklist," said Maurice Williamson, a timber consultant who has put together many RMAPs. "All you have to do is say, 'Yeah, I'll maintain this when it needs it.' "

But he also has put together an RMAP for a landowner who had an intermittent stream. The downstream portion is so dry in summer, the landowner provided pictures of his family picnicking in the middle of it.

But because it was a potentially fish-bearing channel greater than 3-feet wide, the landowner had to replace a culvert at a cost of $5,000.

Regardless, in the northeast at least, many landowners refuse to do anything.

Les Kinney, a Wauconda cattle rancher for 35 years, owns just shy of 500 acres of forest that he had commercially thinned during the timber boom between 1991 and 1998. Most of the 3.75 miles of roads that cut through his trees are little more than dirt tracks, used to cart away cattle or drive logging trucks through during the past decade.

Grass grows on the road, and the nearest fish-bearing stream appears to be across a highway. He has no idea if he'll have to make changes but has no plans to go to DNR to find out.

"Don't care," he said. "I'm not signing anything. I don't want to deal with those people."

Kinney, like many others, fears the small print, which might obligate him to maintain roads into the future. He fears acknowledging that the rules exist will place a legally binding encumbrance on his land and allow government officials greater access to it.

Gary Super, who lives on a 20-acre forested knoll outside Tonasket, recently had his brother Don, a horse logger, fell trees near his house without getting a permit, hoping the state would consider it exempt because he was thinning for fire protection.

He was afraid to seek a permit because state maps show a dirt trough alongside his steep driveway as a stream, and he feared being forced to fill out a road-maintenance plan.

"I don't know if they'd make me do anything or not," he said. "But I shouldn't have to. I own this place free and clear."

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