The Gristle

The Pearl Surrounding the Oyster Dome

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

THE PEARL SURROUNDING THE OYSTER DOME: At a well-attended meeting in Mount Vernon last week, the healthy future of Blanchard Mountain began to take shape.

A proposed trust land swap would preserve the core of Blanchard State Forest trust lands—lands owned by the public and managed by the state Department of Natural Resources—by placing those acres in permanent conservation status while opening other lands in Skagit County to commercial forestry. If approved and completed,  the proposed trust land swap will exchange up to 860 acres that form the nucleus of the ecological and recreational pearl that is Blanchard Mountain with other land parcels in the county of equal value, so that state trust land timber revenue can continue to provide public services in Skagit and help fund schools statewide.

The two-part proposal would change the legal status of the Blanchard core of state forest trust lands for conservation, then use $10 million in state funding to acquire new loggable trust lands in Skagit County.

About 70 people attended the meeting, and the overwhelming majority of the comments were very favorable for the exchange and the continued conservation of Blanchard forest land, according to Bob Winslow, DNR’s manager for the trust land transfer project.

“The inter-trust exchange will position state trust land parcels for a future transfer into a natural area inside the ‘core’ area of Blanchard State Forest,” Winslow explained in his briefing. “If transferred, the land would be managed for recreation, natural resource conservation area, wildlife habitat, or open space uses.”

The Department of Natural Resources is responsible for logging state trust lands in order to provide revenue to various state and local beneficiaries, but the mandate to produce revenues is inreasingly in collision with preserving the ecological function of forests. We need healthy mature forests; and we need money for schools.

The transfer is a last step in a long journey.

“The story starts a century ago, when Blanchard was privately owned and logged,” relates Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest. “When the owner was delinquent in paying taxes, the clear-cut land reverted to Skagit County. Taxes on forest land were higher then, so this was common enough that counties ended up with tens of thousands of acres that they had no capacity to reforest and manage. The legislature gave these lands to the state to manage in trust for the counties and junior taxing districts. By the 1990s, the trees were big enough that the DNR proposed timber sales. But by then Blanchard had become a haven for hiking, horse riding, mountain biking and others who loved the mountain—not to mention habitat for birds and wildlife. A showdown ensued.”

In 2006, conservation groups and activists helped craft the Blanchard Forest Strategy agreement, identifying a 1,600-acre core zone that would be protected for recreation and environmental qualities and would no longer be logged for state trust lands beneficiaries. The idea of a land swap—preserving Blanchard’s core while opening new lands for timber harvests—was a novel one, and garnered the provisional support of the timber industry; however, to implement the Strategy DNR needed to purchase replacement timberlands to offset those in the core zone.

In 2008, the agency adopted a management plan for the state forest on Blanchard Mountain, designating the most stunning part of this recreation area as the core—the Samish Overlook, Oyster Dome, and backcountry camping areas at Lily and Lizard lakes. That core includes 15 miles of trails and gets about 100,000 visitors each year. The core and surrounding state forest lands total about 4,800 acres in a rare unbroken greenbelt that connects the Salish Sea to the foothills of the Cascades.

There the matter stood for a decade while the state’s bruised finances recovered from recession and the Legislature remained paralyzed by political gridlock.

In 2018, the last portion of the funding package was finally approved in a capital budget. Ten million dollars of that package can now go to the purchase and transfer of trust lands in Skagit County that provide revenues to schools—called common school trusts—and reassign those as trust lands that provide timber revenue to county and local taxing districts—called forest trusts.

Winslow said in providing the $10 million in the capital budget, the state Legislature recognized that the Blanchard core is better suited for conservation and recreation than for timber harvest.

“After the land transfers take place, DNR will administer the Blanchard core for conservation and recreation as outlined in the Blanchard Strategy Agreement,” Conservation Northwest noted in a press release. The Bellingham-based organization has played a central role in the long journey to preserve the best of Blanchard Mountain.

The solution could serve as a model for other transfers around the state intended to preserve environmentally or culturally important resource lands while allowing other public lands to continue to generate revenues for schools and other taxing districts.

“This collaborative agreement withstood so much unforeseeable challenge. Through it all the stakeholders held to their commitments and our elected champions remained supportive,” Friedman said. “We found the sweet spot that allowed outdoor recreationists, conservation groups, school trusts, elected leaders and the DNR to walk away happy.”

Every pearl starts with but a grain of sand and a little agitation as catalyst.

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