Snoqualmie Tree Farm purchased - Weyerhaeuser sells land after
conservation group can't meet deadline
SNOQUALMIE, WA-- The Weyerhaeuser Co. has agreed to sell its 104,000-acre Snoqualmie Tree Farm to a timber investment management company.
News of the sale brought dismay tempered with hope to groups who have worked to protect the huge property, which has long been popular with hikers, hunters and other recreationists.
The sale to Hancock Timber Resource Group of Boston, a subsidiary of John Hancock Financial Services, is expected to close sometime in the second quarter of this year.
Weyerhaeuser Chief Executive Steven Rogel wants to trim debt, which swelled after the July purchase of Willamette Industries Inc. Weyerhaeuser, which owed about $13.4 billion at the end of 2002, is selling land, closing mills and firing workers. The company this month cut 250 jobs as it shut some plywood production in Alabama, and has eliminated 750 salaried jobs since October.
The $185 million tree farm deal, announced Sunday night, precludes any purchase of the land by the Evergreen Forest Trust, a nonprofit organization created by state, county and local government officials, conservation groups and individuals to acquire the land and preserve it from development.
U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn expressed disappointment at the sale. She said the House Ways and Means Committee had just approved a measure that would have allowed the trust to purchase the land and thus keep it in local ownership, and she was confident that the legislation would pass the House and Senate and be signed by President Bush.
On Monday Dunn spoke with Don Christensen, president of Hancock Timber, to impress upon him the importance of the property to the Northwest.
``At my request, he has agreed to meet with the Evergreen Forest Trust at his earliest convenience to discuss what role they will wish to play in helping to protect this property,'' Dunn said in a press release.
Covering an area larger than the city of Seattle, the forest occupies a key chunk of east King County, extending from Mount Si north to Mount Index, and from Carnation and Duvall east to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
Purchase of the tree farm by the trust hinged upon Congress passing legislation allowing the organization to sell tax-exempt bonds.
Weyerhaeuser and the trust had agreed to complete the deal within one year, but the agreement expired Jan. 16 without action by Congress.
And although the legislation was likely to pass this session, Weyerhaeuser officials decided they couldn't wait any longer.
``We waited over a year with the trust,'' said Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal. ``We value the relationship with the trust, but the purchase and sale agreement expired in January. We had renewed it a couple of times, and we did what we could to make that work. But we told them in January that if they couldn't come up with financing, we would find other buyers. And sure enough Hancock came up with a good offer.''
John Davis, Hancock's western regional manager, said cooperation with local conservation groups is a ``strategic focus'' of the company, which has 3.1 million acres under management in North America and Australia.
Davis said the company has completed 40 land transactions over the last decade that involve either conservation easements or sensitive lands, including 13 in Washington state.
``I've been in discussions with the Evergreen Forest Trust already today,'' he said Monday. ``We have committed to sitting down with them and exploring options.''
Trust president Gerald Johnson, a partner in the Seattle law firm Preston Gates & Ellis, said everyone is still keen to protect the tree farm, and that Hancock has a good reputation for working with environmental groups.
But no one yet knows what new ownership of the land will mean.
Had the trust acquired the property, it planned to continue commercial logging on some parts while protecting streams, wetlands, wildlife habitat and other sensitive areas.
Those goals may yet be achieved, so conservationists haven't lost hope.
``It means we need to refocus on an owner of the land with different management needs and different financial objectives,'' said Gene Duvernoy, president of the Cascade Land Conservancy. He said the group has worked with Hancock on similar transactions.
Weyerhaeuser has owned the land for more than 100 years. It was part of a 900,000-acre acquisition by company founder Frederick Weyerhaeuser on Jan. 18, 1900, and includes stretches of the Tolt and North Fork Snoqualmie rivers, plus 500 acres of lakes and 4,000 acres of wetlands.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report. Jon Savelle can be reached at email@example.com or 425-453-4231.
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