Coalition presses on to save woodland


LESTER, WA - 6/23/03 -- The view from this ghost town is a crazy quilt of clearcuts etched across the surrounding hills, as if some giant barber had gone mad with his shears.

Below, invasive weeds creep across the valley. High-tension wires slice the flank of Bald Mountain, which, true to its name, is mowed nearly treeless. Decrepit buildings mark what's left of this former railroad company town.

What could environmentalists possibly want to save?

"There's no way looking in there from here that you'd know what's back there," says David Atcheson, one of the activists.

But wade the chilly Green River. Trek up the valley a bit. Secreted away, far off the beaten track, are lush patches of old-growth forest -- some of the last virgin timber left in the Green River watershed. The furrows on the Douglas firs are large enough to bury your hand in.

But note also the name of the creek you follow up the valley: Sawmill. These big logs that somehow survived cutting a century ago will be headed for the mill unless a coalition of environmentalists called the Cascades Conservation Partnership can raise the money it needs to buy and preserve the land. The fund-raising campaign ends next Monday.

"The logging road that would go into sections 31 and 30, it looks like it would go about where this trail is," says Atcheson, the campaign director, as he hikes a path obscured by salal, Oregon grape and vine maple.

This week marks the final push in a three-year fund-raising campaign launched amid the high hopes of the Internet bubble, when Seattle's economy was griddle-hot.

The idea was that people would donate money to the campaign, which would help attract even larger amounts of federal money.

This week, the House Appropriations Committee will debate proposed land acquisitions in the Central Cascades and elsewhere around the nation.

By the time House and Senate budget negotiators hash out which parts of the country get federal land-acquisition dollars later this summer, the Cascades Partnership hopes to have raised an additional $1.75 million in private donations to buy 300 acres beside Sawmill Creek and another 574 acres of high, sparsely timbered ground to the southeast at Windy Pass.

The group hopes to use that privately funded purchase to induce Congress to spend up to $8.5 million buying an additional 5,300 acres. The lands being bought are owned by Plum Creek Timber Co.

So far, the campaign has netted about $15 million from 16,000 Washingtonians, which has helped shake loose another $42 million in federal money. While the campaign sought to protect 75,000 acres, it's protected 29,200 now.

Although it seems destined to fall short of its original goal, the campaign's architects consider it a success.

"We've made such amazing progress over the past few years that I'm feeling good about what we've accomplished," said Charlie Raines, land and public funding director for the Cascades Partnership.

The project is not to be confused with the Mountains to Sound Greenway, a longer-running campaign. While Mountains to Sound protected views along Interstate 90's east-west route, the partnership's campaign seeks to preserve north-south corridors. Scientists are concerned that too much logging and development in the central Cascades, along with I-90, is preventing animals from moving from north to south and back, isolating populations and potentially weakening them genetically.

Paul Joseph Brown / P-I
Even after many trips into the woods along Sawmill Creek, Demis Foster of the Cascades Conservation Partnership is enraptured by the old-growth trees.

Paul Joseph Brown / P-I
Dave Atcheson, campaign director for the Cascades Conservation Partnership, looks over the upper Green River watershed near the ghost town of Lester. The coalition has received $15 million in private donations to buy land.
The partnership seeks to protect strategically placed lands all the way from near Mount St. Helens to Index in Snohomish County. Lester, the ghost town, is close to the middle of it all.

From about 1890 until a fire burned down the last occupied home here a decade ago, Lester was a real town. It was built by Northern Pacific Railroad to house "helper" engineers that aided trains making the last big push over Stampede Pass.

Just finding the trailhead to cruise up Sawmill Creek is a challenge. You either must ford the Green River or go a mile and a half out of your way to cross a scary railroad bridge. Then you have to find the unmarked trailhead."If you're up for adventure and a remote experience, this is it. But it's not really an easy family hike," Atcheson says.

"Isn't it beautiful?" gushes Demis Foster, the campaign's west-side outreach director, as she hikes past hemlocks. "Every time I come here, we discover something new and really cool. It's a little secret jewel."

The acres the partnership seeks to buy marks the eastern chunk of a large patch of green forest and hills. It's a home suited for rare birds, including the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet.

Hawks wheel overhead. A hummingbird thwat-thwat-thwats up to check out visitors. The woods shelter deer and elk. Sawmill Creek nurtures frogs and salamanders.

Biologically, the value of the land "really is high," says Patty Garvey-Darda, a Forest Service biologist. Although the surrounding lands have been hammered by logging, the forests will grow back, serving as havens for wildlife.

The preservation campaign is the legacy of a controversial land exchange between the federal government and Plum Creek Timber that bitterly split environmentalists.

Some thought the government was giving away too much choice forestland. Others pointed out that in exchange, the Forest Service was consolidating holdings here in the Central Cascades, where the wildlife corridors are badly pummeled. Most of the land in question was granted by Congress to Plum Creek's railroad forebear, the Northern Pacific, in an unwieldy checkerboard pattern. Congress granted the railroad every other square mile for 20 miles on either side of its tracks, as inducement for the railroad to connect the East and West.

When the 1999 land exchange was negotiated, Atcheson felt he had to acquiesce when this piece of ground by Sawmill Creek went to the timber company.

"If you'd pulled out one more pin, the whole deal would have fallen apart," Atcheson says.

In the end, Plum Creek got the century-old forests by Sawmill Creek, sprinkled with significant patches of old growth.

Plum Creek did not rush in to cut that timber. It agreed to let the environmentalists have a series of options to buy the property. The first of three expires at the end of this year. Elsewhere, the company has preserved $8.5 million worth of forestland designated for possible repurchase when Congress approved the land exchange.

As at Sawmill Creek, the options on those purchases run out at the end of this year. Plum Creek might consider extending them, but only if it sees significant progress in Congress this year, said Bob Jirsa, Plum Creek's director of corporate affairs.

"The partnership has clearly been successful in their three years, with the help of the congressional delegation," Jirsa said. "There's still a lot of work to do, and we welcome the participation of any groups who want to be cooperative and look for win-win solutions for the public and all other stakeholders."

Environmentalists know that they will probably be back, even after this campaign is over, trying to sew up the lands they couldn't hope to obtain once the economy tanked.

But for now, they're focused on raising the rest of the money they need to buy Sawmill Creek and persuading Congress to chip in millions.

"We've faced tight situations before," Atcheson says. "Don't count us out yet."


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