Mountains of Our Efforts
Wednesday, August 1, 2018
MOUNTAINS OF OUR EFFORTS: First Blanchard. Now Galbraith.
With little advance fanfare, Bellingham City Council last week brought to conclusion a project that has enchanted and perplexed ’hamsters for two decades—acquiring and protecting Galbraith Mountain, the vast green saddle separating Lake Samish and the southwestern shore of Lake Whatcom.
The solution arrives as a partnership between the City of Bellingham, Whatcom Land Trust, and the property owner, Galbraith Tree Farm LLC.
For years, the city or the county, or the two in tandem, explored acquiring the property outright and were driven back by the price tag and complex transfers of ownership as the property flipped from developer to developer. In the approved agreement, the city acquires access to the land, along with covenants that dedicate the resource land to forestry and recreational uses in perpetuity.
The agreement includes both a recreational use easement and a conservation easement. Whatcom Land Trust contributed $250,000 to the purchase and the City of Bellingham Greenway funds contributed $2.75 million for a total of $3 million. The sale is expected to close later this summer, and a management plan will be developed that covers administration, operation and management of the recreational use granted through the easement. The conservation easement prohibits commercial, residential and industrial development on the site.
An eighth the size of Bellingham, Galbraith Mountain reaches an elevation of 1,785 feet. The total area of the easement is 2,182 acres, with 1,023 of those acres inside the Lake Whatcom watershed. The acquisition adjoins 4,250 acres of public land managed by Whatcom County—state forest lands reconveyed to the county for use as a park.
Over the last two decades, Galbraith Mountain has been developed by mountain bikers into a nationally recognized mountain biking haven. Until now, recreational uses have been allowed by the property owners. The property is zoned for commercial forestry, and both recreational use and logging have coexisted for many years.
“After a decade or more of effort, the original goals of permanent recreation, public access and protection from development have been accomplished,” Whatcom Land Trust Executive Director Rich Bowers said. “Galbraith Mountain has long been a highly used and nationally recognized resource. Now Galbraith is guaranteed to forever provide these values to the Whatcom community.”
Council members expressed their pleasure at bringing a long outstanding public goal to completion.
“Many of us didn’t think we would be able to get across the finish line with this,” Terry Bornemann marveled. “We’re not buying it, but we’re getting the recreational easement and we’re preserving that beautiful green backdrop and the recreational opportunities for the citizens forever.”
Under the agreement, the City will pay $2.75 million of the purchase price. The city will make a one-time payment of $25,000 to the Whatcom Land Trust to manage the conservation easement. Both payments use funds from the Greenways levy extension approved by Bellingham voters in 2015.
“These funds were anticipated in the Greenways III levy,” Council member Michael Lilliquist explained. “These funds have been held back and are part of that voter-approved levy, and have been spelled out in the Greenways plan for quite some time that monies were set aside for access to Galbraith Mountain.”
John Blethen, who serves on the volunteer Greenways Committee and who has championed the public lands acquisition program since its inception in 1990, was rueful that a joint partnership between the county and the city might have produced even greater public benefit.
“That the city and county could not put a package together to acquire this property for $8.5 million using that same greenways money with conservation futures money is disturbing,” Blethen confessed, noting that the balance between logging and recreational use comes at ecological cost. “I would like to hear a discussion about how this deal fits the goals of Greenways in terms of protection of the environment for plants and animals.”
His concern is appropriate, given that logging and mountain biking are hard uses, and a sustainable parks plan would manage and mitigate that hard use.
In many ways, the agreement is analogous to that of the solution for Blanchard Mountain—a balance between forestry and recreational use that stalls off the conversion of resource land to other purposes (usually residential development).
Earlier this year, the state Legislature at last made funds available to complete the final land transfers and assembly that preserves the core of the Blanchard recreational area, while easing a policy impasse that had stalled logging operations in the surrounding forests for many years.
And that, in turn, echoes the earlier Lake Whatcom Reconveyance, the granddaddy of these series of grand bargains that bring some forest lands back into public use as parks and trail systems while assigning other lands to commercial forestry. That agreement in 2014 gave Whatcom County title to 8,844 acres that includes Lookout Mountain to the north of Galbraith and the lower greenbelt below Stewart Mountsin along the eastern shore.
Each of these acquisitions were years, decades in the making and involved hundreds of volunteer citizens who would not quit, who would not lose heart even when forward motion failed. These green mountains stand as towering natural monuments to their dedication.
“Galbraith is an amazing example of how a private landowner, commercial forestry, the City of Bellingham, and recreation, environmental and other interests can work together to protect a place so special for everyone,” Bowers said.