Environmentalists are looking to loggers to fend off development of nearly 1 million acres of lush, low-elevation privately owned forest in Western Washington — some of the last places holding the Puget Sound ecosystem together.
FALL CITY — Stumps and slash piles are the tallest things on this forestland less than 30 miles from the Space Needle as the crow flies.
Clear-cut two years ago, this is the sort of sight that not long ago would have riled most environmentalists. But the white hats are on new heads these days. Conservationists are partnering with timber companies on deals, and environmentalists are praising “working forests,” the friendly new term for clear-cuts — in order to stave off development.
It’s a shotgun wedding born of duress, as sprawl, slowed only temporarily by recession, chews away at the last green places holding the Puget Sound ecosystem together.
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For any timber company, real estate — especially sales of developable land — is what brings in the big money. Since the 1970s, more than 1.2 million acres of privately owned forestland have been converted to development in Washington.
Today, nearly 1 million more acres of Western Washington’s lush, low-elevation forests — an area four times the size of Mount Rainier National Park — are at risk of development, according to a new study from the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington. Most vulnerable are forests where the property assessment alone exceeds the value of the land for growing trees. They are typically forests nearest population centers and major roads.
“The battle lines have changed, and the terms of the debate have shifted,” said Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center in Seattle. A longtime nemesis of timber companies, Goldman today is working to keep loggers in business on these privately owned timberlands, where Washington’s identity as the Evergreen State is most at risk.
“We are logging these forests to save them,” Goldman said.
From the Puget Sound region to the Cascade foothills in Southwest Washington, the future of the landscape is quietly being decided. As land values rise, forestland owners are marking properties, particularly those closer to urban areas, for their most profitable use: development.
The shift speeds a downward spiral for the timber economy. As lands go out of timber production, mills starved for logs shut down. That creates longer hauls to faraway mills and less-profitable harvests from smaller parcels, driving even more conversion from forestland to development.
“Essentially everything in the [Cascade] foothill area is high risk,” said David Nunes, president and CEO of Pope Resources, “or the ballgame is [already] over.”
His Poulsbo-based company has been growing and cutting timber in the Puget Sound region since before statehood. But the company today is getting rid of entire swaths of its forestlands, including most of its holdings — nearly 70,000 acres — in Kitsap County.
“We are in the process of exiting North Kitsap, and we make no bones about it,” Nunes said.
But elsewhere, in the foothills of Mount St. Helens, his company is partnering with The Columbia Land Trust in an effort to keep thousands of acres in forestry. His company — the largest private landowner in Skamania County — is being courted as a savior of the landscape.
“For many years, the timber industry was the black hats,” Nunes said. “All of the sudden people want to embrace our activities.”
In a high-water mark of the new collaboration, timber-company representatives recently met with conservationists for a news conference in a Seattle skyscraper.
They met to announce their common cause in backing federal legislation introduced last week to create community forestry bonds — up to $3 billion in tax-exempt revenue bonds nationwide to buy forestlands teetering on the edge of conversion.
Under the legislation, lands purchased with the new bonds would remain in private ownership and still be logged. But the land would carry a permanent conservation easement, under which it could not be developed. It would remain a working forest, logged in perpetuity to pay off the bonds.
The legislation marks a shift in thinking, recognizing the value of forests not only as wilderness or parks, but as working landscapes that function almost like public utilities, cleansing water and air, sequestering carbon, stabilizing soils and providing habitat and wildlife corridors.
More money in land
In some ways, conversion of Puget Sound forestlands to development is one of the oldest stories in the region. The past 100 years have been one long exit strategy for Washington timber companies that were among the first industrialists to convert the region’s natural bounty to cash, first as logs, then as development.
Broadmoor, one of Seattle’s first gated communities, and Alderwood mall each used to be Pope forests.
“We’ve always been exiting,” said Jon Rose, president of Olympic Property Group, Pope’s wholly owned real-estate subsidiary. For any timber company, real estate provides the most money per acre.
Pope enjoyed its most profitable years in 2006 and 2007, on the strength of its real-estate portfolio, not its timberlands. The sale in 2007 of 6 acres for a Costco shopping center site in Gig Harbor brought a record $1.2 million per acre.
That was an extreme case — and the company had to invest millions of dollars in roads, water and other infrastructure, as well as years in the permitting process, to make the deal work.
But even ordinary deals on its lands in North Kitsap make timber a losing proposition. Developable land normally sells for about $12,500 an acre, and timberlands can be purchased elsewhere for $2,000 to $3,000 an acre.
While the economy has slowed, no one, including timber company real-estate executives, regard the cool-down as permanent. Pope just subdivided its tree farm near Mount St. Helens into 37 square miles of 20-acre lots, and it is working steadily at a development plan for the property to have in place when the market heats back up.
Today, while the company is still in the timber business, it’s increasingly looking outside the Puget Sound region and population centers such as Seattle and Portland for its timberland, and targeting its near-in property for development.
Pope is working in Kitsap County on its so-called String of Pearls development, planned in waterfront communities united with a regional trail system. In Skamania County, the company is proposing a recreation-themed development for its 24,000 acres on the south flank of Mount St. Helens, surrounding Swift Reservoir.
Pope is partnering with the Columbia Land Trust to cluster the development on 15 percent of the property, with the rest kept as working forest. The land trust wants to raise the money to buy the development rights or title to the rest of the tree farm.
Clustering the development — and keeping the rest of the land in forestry — would stop square miles of low-density sprawl development, which, while perfectly legal, is one of the worst outcomes for the ecosystem. The land trust also wants to help retain timber jobs and a natural-resources economy close to home, said Glenn Lamb, the trust’s executive director.
Forest as farm
Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, headquartered in Bellingham, sees a logical evolution of the logging debate as the region grows.
“It would be a mistake for logging and forestry to be branded as evil,” Friedman said. “It’s about supporting quality farming and forest practices and protecting the right places.”
It’s not always an easy sell, said Friedman, a tree-sitter during the Northwest’s old-growth battles of the 1970s. “I’m an apostate, a turncoat on this issue,” Friedman said. “We need to hug loggers the way we do farmers. Given the choice between a logger and a developer, I’m going to take the logger, even if that challenges some of the notions of my old friends.”
To some foresters, the new thinking is old hat. They always have seen the next forest amid the clear-cut trees, and regarded their work as preservation, caretaking a resource for another generation’s harvest.
Gilbert and Carolyn Oster, of Fall City, recently decided to keep their 90-acre property in forestry, despite the 5-acre-lot subdivision zoning already on the property — just the sort of sprawl eating up the Puget Sound ecosystem. They have put a conservation easement on their land, under which they will continue to own and log their property, but may not develop it.
Forestland like theirs helps keep the lowland, riparian valleys of the Puget Sound functioning ecologically. Even clear-cut, the land holds stormwater runoff, and provides habitat for native plants, birds and other wildlife. The forest, by law, is replanted — and it’s vigorously growing back.
Walking the land
Gilbert Oster walks the clear-cut with a video camera, to document the growth of the replanted trees, stretching with bright new growth. Carolyn patrols with clippers, snipping a blackberry branch here or a kicking over a thistle there.
They’ve worked this forestland since the 1950s, and don’t intend to let it convert to housing subdivisions now.
Across the way, they can see the development moving east from Issaquah.
Gilbert Oster takes binoculars from his eyes with a pained expression. “What I see over there on that ridge makes me very happy we did what we did.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org