proposes new trust to pay for recreation
SEATTLE - People love to play on state-owned lands such as Tiger Mountain, Capital State Forest and Tahuya State Forest. But the state is struggling to pay for maintenance and upkeep, and these popular sites are in danger of being loved to death by the public.
On Tuesday, Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland announced plans to create a new trust fund to cover the costs of recreation on state trust lands. He wants the state to buy 50,000 to 100,000 acres of private timber land and harvest the trees, using the proceeds to pay for maintaining public access to public lands.
Sutherland revealed his idea at the annual meeting of the Cascade Land Conservancy, a private group that raises money to buy and preserve forest land. Leaders of the group were intrigued.
"I think it is one of the major and most exciting conservation approaches I've heard come out of state government in a long time," said the conservancy president, Gene Duvernoy.
During his campaign in 2000, Sutherland promised he'd work to keep public lands open to the public.
But it's not easy. Sometimes the public can be a real pain.
The Department of Natural Resources found 70 abandoned cars in the Capitol Forest near Olympia last year, some leaking motor oil into streams. The entire 26,000-acre Tahoma State Forest in Pierce County was shut down last summer after foresters discovered a highly toxic meth lab there.
And Tahuya State Forest near Bremerton is a constant challenge.
Sutherland keeps in his office a Tahuya road sign dotted with more than 30 bullet holes, some larger than .50 caliber. Foresters complain about off-roaders ripping through wetlands with their SUVs. Police receive more than a hundred 911 calls a year from the Tahuya campgrounds. One outhouse there was recently destroyed by an arsonist and another was sprayed with armor-piercing bullets.
And that's all on top of normal wear and tear on trails and campgrounds from well-meaning visitors. State forests get 7.2 million visits per year, Sutherland said.
"The cost of this is enormous," he said.
Much to his chagrin, Sutherland closed some state lands to the public. He said he had to do it when he realized he couldn't guarantee that visitors would be safe - or that the land would be safe from the visitors.
"It wasn't fun. I did not like it," he said of the closures.
The agency's budget for maintaining state trust lands is about $2.5 million this year. Last year Sutherland requested an additional $2.3 million for everyday maintenance, but the Legislature reduced that to $325,000. This year, the cash-strapped Legislature cut $670,000 from the agency's maintenance budget.
"It's just a reality, there are not enough funds to go around," Sutherland said.
So, who's going to pony up the money to buy this new trust land? Sutherland said he doesn't know yet, but he raised the possibility of a public-private partnership. He said it's a good time to buy, because the lumber market is soft and private landowners may be willing to sell at bargain prices.
If the Legislature approves his idea, Sutherland said he would hope to raise at least $1 million in the first year.
It would be only the third land trust created since statehood.
The Department of Natural Resources manages 5.6 million acres of state trust land to benefit different trust funds for schools and counties. By law, the agency can't use money from existing trust lands for anything else, so DNR depends on the Legislature for recreation funds.
Lawmakers applauded the innovative thinking, but said they're waiting for more details.
"At a time like this, we need to take a look at every creative idea we can," said Rep. Jim Horn, R-Mercer Island, referring to the state's extremely lean budget picture.
Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, called Sutherland's idea interesting, but noted that the Legislature already puts money into several funds for parks and public lands.
Both Murray and Horn attended the Cascade Land Conservancy breakfast that Sutherland addressed Tuesday.
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