The Gristle

Algebra of Reconveyance, committed to proof
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COMMITTED TO PROOF: As we go to press this week, Whatcom County Council is engaged in another monumental, marathon session into late hours discussing the merits of the Lake Whatcom Reconveyance, the transfer of nearly 9,000 acres of state forest trust lands into county management as a park. And the Gristle will make a prediction: They’ll approve the transfer—if not immediately, this week, then soon and before the end of the year. And four (we’ll go further and predict five) of them will deserve high praise for the single most proactive, protective policy decision in five decades regarding this drinking water resource for 100,000 people.

The votes to approve it are there. Perhaps more importantly, the votes required to forever kill it are not there.

Crafted as a resolution requesting completion of the transfer by the state Dept. of Natural Resources in Olympia, their decision needs only a simple majority to pass. Their decision is not subject to veto by county administration; nor has County Executive Jack Louws telegraphed any interest in issuing such an override.

Over the past several weeks, council has held a series of special sessions that have answered every serious question (and a few deeply unserious ones) that remained regarding this transfer. Most had already been answered in sessions stretching back half a decade. As Council member Sam Crawford has noted, very few items that come before county policymakers are as openly described and discussed and understood and certain as this matter.

Breaking it down: DNR has already consolidated and reserved almost all the available commercial forestry acres that might reasonably be logged, under the Lake Whatcom landscape plan, on behalf of trust beneficiaries. Through agreements and endowments, school districts have been made whole and happy. Remaining taxing districts are satisfied to leave uncollected revenues on the table (versus inviting the unwanted political and policy complaint of obstructing protective measures for the reservoir). The great portion of the remaining consolidated acres cannot reasonably be logged under any current scenario; their removal from a commercial forestry plan ranks least of what ails the timber industry. Thus, the only question remaining was whether Whatcom County would have use of the land for any other purpose. Only as a park, state law requires.

The decision is not much more complicated than that—despite screeching, fevered efforts to make it so.

Through their meetings, council learned DNR might conceivably manage the acres as a park, but was under no compulsion or mission to do so, with powerful headwinds pushing against and stalling the idea (gusting large among them, competing interests for the limited resources of a statewide agency). They also learned an important reciprocal, that DNR forestry practices and resources might manage county acres that could conceivably be logged for future revenues; meanwhile, the county would hold the easements and trail corridors through these lands.

Once all reasonable questions are reasonably answered, all that remains is the unreasonable and unreasoning—conspiracy theorists, virulent anti-statist types and denizens of the fever swamps, their tinfoil plumage on proud display throughout council’s meetings on the proposal, eager to throw down any incendiary or lumber to burn the plan. By the end, this had whittled down to a single point: The county had not forwarded a comprehensive management plan for the park.

In other words, the county had not advanced tens of thousands of tax­payer dollars on a speculative idea before the idea was approved; the county had not pushed forward a complete plan for developing property someone else owned. Horrors.

The unstated reality (which a column like this can expose) is that the county need do nothing—invest nothing, spend nothing, plan nothing—for many years while the area still serves as a fabulous near-wilderness for thousands of happy hikers and bikers. Its sole criteria to function as a public park is that it is not gated off. Any authority with standing to complain of the inadequacy of such a primitive park would not complain. The idea the county must invest a fortune—insisted upon by haters who would not gladly part with a nickel for public investment—in order to prove worthy of receiving these lands is ludicrous, bordering on asinine.

Ultimately a decision of proximate interests and local control, the round peg of reconveyance does not fit easily or at all into the square hole of standard tea party rubric, despite fevered efforts to try. The voltage is wrong.

Special praise must go to Pete Kremen, who advanced the idea as executive and brought it to completion by an added term on council. And to Sam Crawford, who understood the compelling (and conservative) economics and who asked the hard, probing questions that permitted council to get to yes. More clever than many, Crawford gets generational bragging rights plus a lifetime built-in excuse to do nothing ever again for the protection of Lake Whatcom, and probably claim to filtration offsets for new development he would like to see in the watershed (he can try anyway). Council President Kathy Kershner also deserves praise, both for an important vote at a critical moment that kept the idea alive and for intelligent leadership as she managed council discussion on the topic, even at potential political cost to herself. And with their votes, Carl Weimer and Ken Mann kept the idea on the county agenda, moving forward.

The irony of county politics is that the easiest decisions to make are frequently made hardest.

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