Greens, loggers find common ground in saving Cascade foothills
RAVENSDALE, WA-- The sight and sound of lumberjacks crashing through the forest behind her Cascade foothills farm used to send Joan Burlingame into fits of apoplexy. The men were noisy, blustery and hard-drinking when off-duty. Their clearcutting left her property with a view of little more than scraggly lots.
Beyond their work habits, the culture clash between the loggers and Burlingame, a college textbook writer who savors long walks through quiet woods, seemed insurmountable.
"Yes, their crops take 40 years to come to maturity and mine take a year, but we're both farmers," she said. "They like to hike. They like to work outside. We have a lot in common, actually."
That change of heart echoes much of the thinking behind a measure signed earlier this month by the leaders of King, Snohomish and Pierce counties to protect 600,000 acres of highly developable, privately owned industrial timberland just west of the Cascades -- much of which could come up for sale as logging companies give up their holdings in the area.
"I think it's great," said Burlingame of the pro-logging, land-protection measure. "In the past three years, we've had as much land lost to development out here as we did in the previous 25."
Since 1985, more than 100,000 acres of Western Washington forest have been razed and paved to make room for suburbia, according to a 2003 report issued by the Wilderness Society.
"We've got to have a wall against sprawl, and this is it," said King County Executive Ron Sims. "Otherwise, you'll see building all the way up to the mountains."
Though not legally binding, the Feb. 2 Foothills Initiative signifies a major shift among conservation groups. Instead of demonizing loggers, environmentalists are searching for ways to partner with them in the face of mounting pressure from developers snapping up prime acreage. Selective logging, the thinking holds, is preferable to new building in rural areas.
"Industrial forestry is messy and it's sloppy," said Gene Duvernoy, president of the Cascade Land Conservancy. "You see clearcuts and say, 'God, that's awful.' But the truth is, it's still better than a shopping mall."
Although the 1990 Growth Management Act regulates home-building in the conservation area, the conservancy is operating on the assumption that over time, laws can be changed, zoning amended and open space eroded. Keeping forestlands in the control of timber companies could preserve them as green space.
Real estate groups, while applauding the Foothills Initiative in concept, worry about its ultimate impact.
"Anything that subtracts from available land supply is of concern to us," said Mike Pattison, a lobbyist for the Snohomish County-Camano Association of Realtors.
"When urban growth areas fill, the next step is to expand, so you can see where the concern comes in."
Conservation-minded residents, however, hail the measure as a long-overdue step forward.
The willing participation of timber companies and landowners will be crucial, and is by no means assured. Some loggers have voiced suspicion of the conservationists' aims and practices. Others in the timber industry believe developers will offer a better deal.
Meanwhile, if any forest owner cedes land to the conservancy, development focus will merely intensify on the remaining plots, said Tom Hanson, owner of International Forestry Consultants in Kirkland, which manages a plot of timberland in the conservation zone.
"It sounds all warm and fuzzy in the grand scheme of things," he said. "But this simply transfers the real estate pressure from one property to another."
Toby Thaler, a lawyer at the Washington Forest Law Center, has worried for years about the lack of a regional approach to conservation. He works daily with logging companies, negotiating exactly the kinds of conservation easements the conservancy proposes, and he has seen resistance when negotiations move off paper into boardrooms.
"We'd tell them, 'We're happy to be more lenient on forest practice requirements if you promise to keep the land in forestry,' and the answer from the industry was 'Go to hell,' " he said.
In the past year, Weyerhaeuser has sold its Snoqualmie Tree Farm and White River Tree Farm -- a total of 200,000 acres of forest in King and Pierce counties -- to a subsidiary of Hancock Financial Services in Boston. Hancock has made no promises about keeping the hills green and its primary responsibility is to shareholders, not residents of nearby North Bend, Carnation, Buckley and Enumclaw.
But John Davis, the Western regional manager for Hancock Timber Resource Group, said the company is discussing arrangements to protect portions of its property, and in the past decade has agreed to conservation agreements on 10 percent of its 2 million acres of U.S. timberland.
"I'm not in a position to say what is or is not going to happen here, but we're really very interested in the kinds of transactions that the Cascade Foothills Initiative announced," Davis said.
Massive tree farms such as Hancock's are essential to the conservation effort, because a single land sale can protect huge swaths of open space, as opposed to acre-by-acre efforts to protect the wilderness.
But the fate of smaller, privately owned plots can dramatically affect a region, too. When Dick and Rosanne Zemp moved into North Bend during the 1960s, the main thoroughfare was a two-lane road and their view spanned farm fields. The couple bought 700 acres of land, some of which became the Factory Stores of America Mall, a Nintendo distribution center and the Mountain Valley Center. The three Zemp children bounced on inner tubes to the rhythm of I-90 construction.
Now a real estate agent himself, Bryan Zemp, 37, elder of the family's two sons, is entertaining competing offers on his late father's remaining plot -- 270 acres along Rattlesnake Ridge. The asking price: $6 million to $7 million. He'd like to build a park in Dick Zemp's memory -- other family holdings, like Meadowbrook Farm, have been protected as open space.
But others envision a series of new multimillion-dollar homes dotting the mountain crest.
Thaler shudders at the thought.
"Imagine a Puget-opolis with subdivisions all the way up to 3,000 feet, where the national forest starts," he said. "It is a grim vision. It would be a wet and soggy Los Angeles."
P-I reporter Claudia Rowe can be reached at 206-448-8320 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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