Area 12 times size of Seattle sought for Cascades preservation

By Craig Welch and Warren Cornwall
Seattle Times staff reporter

1/31/04

Graphic: The Cascade foothills preservation area

Seattle, WA - The idea is as big as it gets: Lasso the Puget Sound region's stampeding growth once and for all, before it marches up the Cascade foothills over hundreds of thousands of acres of private forest.

Cascade foothills initiative
Some 600,000 acres of rural forest land in eastern King, Pierce and Snohomish counties would be permanently set aside for conservation, though some of it would still be logged under a sweeping plan crafted by the three county governments, two conservation groups and the state Department of Natural Resources.
Click to see map illustration.


Top officials with King, Pierce and Snohomish counties plan to sign an agreement Monday that for the first time would commit them to jointly seek every available means short of regulation to permanently keep development off 600,000 acres of working forest an area 12 times the size of Seattle, and more than twice as big as Mount Rainier National Park.

The three county executives, along with the state commissioner of public lands and two of the region's most successful land conservancies, plan to dedicate staff time, seek federal money and try everything from conservation easements to massive transfers of development rights to keep the Douglas fir-dominated forests from morphing into suburbia.

How soon or whether the plan outlined in a six-page "letter of intent" the parties plan to sign next week amounts to anything, only time will tell.

But officials have been working quietly behind the scenes for almost a year to build a framework that would have the state's population center work as a single unit to tap money and use free-market techniques to prevent the Cascades' private forests from sprawling with homes and strip malls.

"I cannot overstate the importance of having these four elected officials, from both political parties, all willing to dedicate resources to saying we're not going to let our foothills become the Front Range of Colorado developed from Boulder to Colorado Springs," said Gene Duvernoy, director of the Cascade Land Conservancy.

Duvernoy, whose group already has helped preserve tens of thousands of acres of farm and forest land in Washington, has met or spoken with many of the industrial- and family-forest landowners about his ideas in the past year. He wants to work with the Trust for Public Land to create massive "investor pools," where people can put money toward keeping undeveloped land operating as working forest. He envisions the Department of Natural Resources buying up land that could continued to be logged, or swapping prized lands in the foothills for other parcels the state owns. And the agreement comes on the heels of Congress granting approval for a land-saving technique Duvernoy has championed for two years the idea of using tax-exempt bonds to buy forest land, and then paying the bonds back with the proceeds from logging.

"We're talking about all the traditional approaches, but on a massive scale that hasn't been seen before," Duvernoy said.

The plan stemmed from failed efforts in recent years to use those so-called forestry bonds to buy Weyerhaeuser's 104,000-acre Snoqualmie Tree Farm. Congress didn't change the tax code to make use of the bonds legal before Weyerhaeuser sold the land a year ago to a Boston-based investment company.

"Gene brought us all together and said we can look at things piece by piece, or county by county, or we can look at doing this collaboratively," said King County Executive Ron Sims. Of course, those involved admit the grand plans are, at this stage, merely that.

"I'd describe it as one step above a handshake, but one step below a purchase agreement," said Todd Myers, spokesman for Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland.




The agreement specifies goals and stresses cooperation, but doesn't outline specific steps.

"There's nothing spelled out in the way of requirements for Snohomish County," said Mark Funk, spokesman for new Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon. "We don't have any money in the budget for this. This is more a commitment of staff time and the hope that maybe down the line we can leverage some state, federal or even private funds for this."

But neither has there been, in recent years, such a public and unanimous acknowledgement of this regional problem, and commitment to at least make united efforts to tackle it.

"What it sends is a message that we know one of the issues that assists mightily in competing for Boeing and high-tech firms is quality of life," said Bob Drewel, former Snohomish County executive, now with the Puget Sound Regional Council.

The agreement also capitalized on a growing sense, even among some environmentalists, that finding financial incentives to help some forest landowners continue to cut down trees may be better for the region than turning the land over for housing developments or trying to force land-use changes through onerous regulations.

"The foothills forests are under enormous pressure with land prices and values rising for landowners to sell for growth," said Myers. "And the return on forestry can't keep up with the value of those lands if they developed."

Snohomish County, for example, has launched a pilot project to try transferring development rights from farmland near Arlington to someplace else as a means of keeping the landscape in agriculture. But there is nothing comparable in place for forest land at this point, Funk said.

Still, there already are reservations among some.

"I think the development industry would want to make certain that if this happens that there was enough attention paid to our buildable lands supply for future residential, commercial and industrial use," said Mike Pattison, lobbyist for the Snohomish County-Camano Association of Realtors. "We're not against preserving forest land. But we have to be mindful that there's future growth that has to be accommodated."

Frank Mendizabal, spokesman for Weyerhaeuser, which now owns only a limited amount of land in the three counties, said that to make preservation attractive, governments would need to show the financial benefit of such deals.

"From a private landowner's perspective, especially for a publicly traded company, there has to be a benefit to our shareholders," he said. "It's got to make business sense, because we're running a business."

And, of course, land purchases would require millions of dollars, transferring development rights would require time-consuming and tricky negotiations, and every move would require participation from often skeptical landowners. But Duvernoy is running on his reputation.

"If you look at the history of the organizations involved Cascade Land Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land they're not in business to make plans," Duvernoy said. "They're in business to change the landscape and make things happen."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com.


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