News

This Mountain Was Saved

Blanchard Forest agreement 
nears completion

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

“Blanchard!” Sen. Kevin Ranker wrote me last week.

“We just passed the capital budget, and the Harriet Spanel Forest is permanently protected,” the Orcas Island Democrat explained.

The state senator who formerly held Ranker’s position would have been pleased for future of the forest that bears her name and that overlooks the islands and delta and fertile farmlands of the district she represented—a sweeping panorama visible from the Oyster Dome.

Blanchard Mountain was a success story that teetered at the brink of failure—the choicest forests and vistas spared from the ravages of logging by a canny forestry plan that made available more total acres for harvests. The agreement was a potential win-win-win for environmentalists, naturalists and forest agribusiness, and what the plan needed most was the remainder of funding necessary to acquire the land from the state Department of Natural Resources. But those funds were held up in an impasse over the state’s approved but stalled $4.5 billion capital budget.

Without those funds, the clock would run out and those choicest lands would be logged. The timber industry had been patient for many long years.

The capital budget passed last week included $10 million for the Trust Land Transfer Program, the mechanism that will be used to protect the Blanchard core. A bill sponsored by Ranker would rename the forest for one of Blanchard’s greatest champions in the Legislature.

“I’m thankful we finally have a capital budget in place” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said. Franz is head of DNR, which manages state land for a variety of trusts—including school districts—which need to be made financially whole in the transfer of these lands.

“Now we can continue our work to fulfill the state’s promise to Skagit County to protect Blanchard Mountain,” Franz said. “With its green mountain top and sweeping views of Puget Sound, Blanchard Mountain exemplifies everything that makes Washington’s landscapes so iconic.

“I’m happy the legislature has given us the tools to preserve this place for the thousands who visit it every year and to keep Skagit County forests working to make our communities stronger,” the commissioner of public lands said.

Located just south of the Whatcom County line, Blanchard Mountain has about 100,000 visitors a year. At the southern end of the Chuckanut Range its slopes are a favorite destination for hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. Its windswept summit is sought by paragliders and hang gliders.

About a decade ago, conservation groups who sought to save the mature forests along trails and the summit hit upon an idea that would form the Blanchard Forest Strategy—a plan to make more total forest resource lands available for harvests in a compromise that would save the most prized 1,600-acre core for naturalists and recreationalists. In the process, the strategy would fulfill DNR’s operational mandate to provide revenue through timber sales to Skagit County, Burlington-Edison schools and other smaller taxing districts

To offset revenue, other land in Skagit County needed to be acquired for timber harvest recently valued at $14.2 million.

The Legislature had set aside $6.5 million of the total needed. The remaining $7.7 million to save the core from being logged was held up in the capital budget by Republicans who sought leverage on the issue of rural wells and water rights. Republicans’ narrow hold on the issue collapsed after a special election last November.

“It’s now safe to say that the Blanchard Mountain core is safe, with the protection it deserves,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, an organization that played a central role in conceiving and shepherding the Blanchard Forest Strategy.

“It’s worth noting there’s a few hurdles left,” Friedman cautioned. “The bond bill to fund the capital must pass. And a modest fix is required to make sure Burlington-Edison school district gets its trust funds.” An inter-trust land swap completes the transfer.

“But it is all doable enough,” Friedman said.

Completed, the strategy may form a vital proving ground for other sorts of land transfers that attempt to balance the ecological function of mature forests with the economics of timber harvests. But for now: There’s Blanchard.

“The recession and other challenges meant it required a dozen years of sustained effort by a broad community of Blanchard lovers and a diverse stakeholders, including timber and Skagit County, who stood by their commitments,” Friedman said. “The legislators of the 40th battled for us throughout. It’s the legacy that the late Senator Harriet Spanel deserves.”

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