News

Can This Forest Be Saved?

Blanchard Mountain hangs in the balance

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

They renamed the state forest after one of its most ardent champions. They approved the mechanism that would save the core of the forest from being logged through an existing program called a Trust Land Transfer. Now, in a special session, can this forest be saved?

Before they adjourned their regular session in Olympia, the state House of Representatives passed a capital budget bill that includes funding to save the Blanchard Mountain forest core through an existing program called Trust Land Transfer. But the Senate has become mired in a bitter feud over the funding of education.

Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island), the lead Democrat in the Senate responsible for writing Washington state’s $42 billion operating budget, is committed to getting that last funds required to complete the agreement for Blanchard.

“This absolutely remains a priority and must be fully funded,” Ranker said.

There’s no fundamental disagreement in Olympia that Blanchard can and should be saved. Even commercial loggers are on board with the plan, if agreement means they can begin logging areas outside the core. In past sessions, the Legislature has approved a third of the money required for the transfer. But this year, Blanchard could be held hostage to a protracted fight over the larger state operating budget.

Blanchard Mountain is a staple of outdoor recreation in Whatcom and Skagit counties, the only place in Washington state where the Cascade Mountains meet the Salish Sea. The state forest is a hugely popular recreation area visited by more than 55,000 people from across the region each year, according to a visitor count from a few years ago.

Spectacular views from the Oyster Dome are at risk from a logging plan that would clearcut the summit. But there is a plan to protect a 1,600-acre plot of land within the Blanchard State Park that contains Osyter Dome, two backyard ponds, several trails and back country campsites.

Popular recreation areas within the core include Lily and Lizard lakes and the campsites by each lake; viewpoints at Oyster Dome and North Butte; the Samish Overlook and 12 miles of trails.

This year’s scheduled 105-day session ended in April without an agreement on the budget. Governor Inslee immediately called lawmakers back into a 30-day special session.

But in their regular session, the House made another gesture for Blanchard forests—they proposed naming the forest in memory of their colleague Sen. Harriet Spanel, who served the 40th District for 22 years and worked tirelessly to protect the Chuckanut, Blanchard, and Whatcom forest lands for future generations. Spanel passed away in 2016 at the age of 77. The bill in her honor passed the House 92-5 (disgracefully, two of the five opposing Republican votes were from 42nd District Representatives Vincent Buys and Luanne VanWerven).

The gesture serves to illustrate broad bipartisan support to save the core of the state forest, if the effort to do so can be disentangled from more quarrelsome budget concerns.
Ironically, it is a little different spin on the century-long collision between state forest trust lands and the funding of public schools. That collision usually takes the form of logging public lands to provide revenues for public schools. This time it is the very conversation about the funding of schools that is threatening to run out the clock on Blanchard. The forest is scheduled to be logged this summer unless the land transfer is fully funded.

The legislatively approved Trust Land Transfer is a program managed by the state Department of Natural Resources that permits state forested trust lands to be purchased by another public agency (commonly, county governments) that will manage and protect the asset for public use and enjoyment.

During her campaign to lead DNR, the state’s 14th Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz promised to work tirelessly to encourage the funding for Blanchard Mountain. She’s been a strong advocate for Senate action.

“Our communities and departments have worked too hard to come to a solution, and this is too much of a precious resource that will be lost,” Franz said. “Once it is logged, we’ll have to wait another 150 years to get it back again.”

Since the land transfer program’s start in 1989, the Legislature has appropriated $798.5 million to fund the program. This has resulted in the transfer or lease of about 116,455 acres of lower yield forest lands for protection and management while generating revenues for common schools. The Blanchard forest transfer requires funding of $12 million—an amount approved in successive actions by the Legislature but only partially funded.

“In a time when natural places often feel further away than ever, Blanchard Mountain offers accessible wildness just minutes from the busy I-5 corridor,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest and a member of the stakeholders group that convened the Blanchard Forest Strategy agreement in 2007.

“This is a public forest with miles of trail for hikers, bikers and horse riders, as well as habitat for fish and wildlife. It’s a local outdoor experience that’s inviting for people of all ages and backgrounds. That’s something special, and for the more than 100,000 visitors a year that hike to Oyster Dome or wander through Blanchard’s evergreens, it’s a prized piece of the quality of life our region enjoys. But if logging takes place in the Blanchard core, those experiences will be severely altered. That’s why it’s so important that people contact their state legislators, and now their state senators in particular, and urge them to fully fund a Trust Land Transfer for the 1,600- acre Blanchard core in the capital budget. If we don’t voice our support loud enough and the legislature doesn’t act, a cherished place will be degraded for decades, and thousands of Washingtonians will witness it firsthand.”

Conservation Northwest and Friends of Blanchard Mountain were among a diverse group of stakeholders who sought to preserve the choicest portion of the forest for recreation and public enjoyment, while allowing the lower and more easily accessed slopes of Blanchard to be logged commercially.
In late 2007, with support from the DNR and Commissioner of Public Lands, the group announced the Blanchard Forest Strategy agreement. The agreement was signed in January 2007.

The collaborative agreement identified a 1,600-acre core zone that would be conserved for recreation and environmental qualities and would no longer be logged for state trust lands beneficiaries.

While Blanchard is beloved for views and hiking and exploration, the vast greenbelt also provides important habitat connectivity as the only place in Washington where the Cascades meet the Salish Sea.

“This core protects most of the recreational resources such as the top of Blanchard including the Oyster Dome, trails and lakes,” Friedman explained. “The other two-thirds of Blanchard will remain working forest.”

The strategy plan also includes an effort to purchase nearby private forestland that is at risk of conversion to residential use in order to sustain the working land base for generating revenue for the Burlington-Edison School District and other specific trusts.

The Public Land Commissioner accepted the recommendations and the Legislature showed their support by providing $5.5 million of the $12 million in appropriations necessary to fund the replacement land purchases. An additional $7.7 million is sought in this year’s budget to complete the agreement.

The state House has approved. Now the Senate must agree.

Be optimistic, Friedman advises. But also—take direct action. Your calls and letters matter.

A history of protecting Blanchard Forest

A decade ago, the chair of the Mount Baker Group of the Sierra Club, Randy Walcott, took up the cause of protecting Blanchard State Forest and Blanchard Mountain from ongoing logging. In December 1998, he formally petitioned the DNR requesting that Blanchard Mountain be declared a natural resource conservation area. The agency denied the petition, citing loyalties to the trust.

In 2001, Conservation Northwest joined a diverse group of environmental stewards and land trusts to protect Blanchard State Forest. Part of the strategy was to demonstrate that commercial logging can co-exist with the protection of forests, each effort pushing back against the conversion of resource lands to other uses.

In 2006, to break a long stalemate, the DNR convened a group of diverse interests, including representatives from Conservation Northwest and Friends of Blanchard Mountain, to create a collaborative forest management plan for Blanchard’s forests. It was an opportunity for the Board of Natural Resources and DNR staff to work with citizens finding a proactive solution to protect this remarkable mountain and its forested trails and wildlife habitat.

In late 2006, this collaboration produced the Blanchard Forest Strategy agreement, protecting 1,600 acres of core, central habitat from logging while allowing continued logging on other parts of the forest under prevailing rules. That heart of Blanchard is 1,300 acres more than the DNR wanted to give up and 1,000 acres less than what conservationists had been fighting for. But the Blanchard agreement made up for that by finding unexpected common ground around the idea of working together to prevent the conversion of working forests to sprawl. The agreement was signed in January 2007. 

In 2010, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark announced that the Department of Natural Resources intends to establish a Natural Resource Conservation Area (NRCA) at the core of Blanchard State Forest. NRCA designation protects “outstanding examples of native ecosystems, habitat for endangered, threatened and sensitive plants and animals, and scenic landscapes. 

In 2016, the State Legislature has previously supported the Blanchard agreement with $6.5 million in funding; however, an additional $7.7 million was needed to complete the purchases of core zone replacement lands.

In 2017, the State House approved full funding in its budget to implement the Strategy that will save Blanchard, but as of May 2017 the state Senate has yet to support it as well. Without the state Senate’s support, Blanchard is still at risk of being logged as early as this summer, with years of partnership and the shared vision for the forest lost.

Information provided by Conservation Northwest, http://www.conservationnw.com/blanchard

 

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