EPA chief's visit boosts plan to buy forest land with bonds

SNOQUALMIE -- Supporters of an innovative plan to purchase Weyerhaeuser Co. land here received a boost yesterday, when the nation's top environmental official visited the Snoqualmie Tree Farm and listened to community opinions.

As part of her Puget Sound-area visit, Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman talked with area representatives about the idea to use tax-exempt bonds to purchase 104,000 acres of company-owned forest.

Proponents have called the $185 million plan, which would block any new suburban housing development, good public policy because parts of the land will still be harvested.

The money raised from that will go to cover the bonds. But 20,000 acres will be used for water collection and purification, said Gene Duvernoy, Cascade Land Conservancy president.

"The potential is exciting," said Whitman, who sat under trees and wore a bright orange helmet and vest. Nearly 50 government, business and environmental officials attended the meeting.

Whitman's visit is a big step in getting federal attention for the project, proponents said. Many said the plan avoids legal battles and conflicts that have dogged past conservation and development issues.

The cooperation "... brought together folks who might be at opposite ends of the table," said U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash. She accompanied Whitman and has sponsored legislation supporting the idea.

"It's a new way to achieve conservation," said King County Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, a member of the Evergreen Forest Trust's board of directors.

If the plan succeeds, McKenna's group would eventually manage the land. But Cascade Land Conservancy would assist with water purification efforts.

Meeting participants said they hope this partnership approach could be a model for future projects nation-wide.

Mark Sollitto, a North Bend city councilman, attended the meeting because he supports the idea. He is concerned that new homes on the land would add to area sprawl and traffic congestion. And Whitman's visit added "traction" to moving the legislation ahead, he said.

Congress must formally approve the legislation by the end of the year, because Weyerhaeuser wants to complete the agreement by then, said Duvernoy. Or the Internal Revenue Service needs to confirm before 2003 that these bonds can be sold with tax-exempt interest, he said.

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