Saturday, June 2, 2012

Lake Whatcom Reconveyance

As noted previously, the Whatcom County Council voted to move forward with the Lake Whatcom reconveyance creating a 8,700 acre County Forest Preserve Park in the Lake Whatcom watershed. For local Whatcomcentric folks reconveyance has become familiar. It is an idea that has been a local policy issue for sometime. What follows is a summary history of the Lake Whatcom Reconveyance and an editorial note at the end.

What is Reconveyance?

Reconveyance applies only to forest board lands. Forest board lands were created after cut and run logging operations in the early 1900s left hundreds of thousands of acres of cut over land that county governments had foreclosed on due to failure to pay property taxes. This type of forestry had happened in other states as well. In Washington State questionable homesteading and corrupt land give-a-ways by local Government Land Offices allowed large swaths of timber land to be available for harvest with little regard for long term management. Throw in boom and bust economic cycles and the result was a wasted landscape subject to fire and slow forest recovery. Giffird Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt had predicted this would happen in the west and moved to better manage the western forests by creating National Forests. 

By the 1920s and 1930s large swaths of cut over land in tax foreclosure covered hundreds of thousands of acres. County governments did not have the capacity to deal with these lands so the State stepped in and took over management of these lands. This management added to the already large tracts of State owned State Trust Lands that were ceded to the State by the Federal government at Statehood. Management was needed to get the land reforested and manged for fire. One county, Grays Harbor County, was allowed to opt out of the program. Grays Harbor County manages their own county forest board lands.

Although lumped together with the State Trust lands, the Forest Board Lands are not the same. Local counties can have the lands reconveyed back to County management, but only for park purposes. Hence, the term reconveyance. The land that is reconveyed goes from State management to County management.


Early January 1983 is a stand out date for Lake Whatcom, forest practices in Washington State and geology. An intense storm event focused an atmospheric river of water into the Northwest Cascades. At numerous locations throughout the range but with a particular focus on the steep mountain slopes above Lake Whatcom, the South Fork Nooksack River, and Samish River old logging roads collapsed, culverts on logging roads plugged and dozens of debris flows descended down the steep drainages. In the Lake Whatcom watershed Smith Creek, Carpenter Creek, Olsen Creek, Blue Canyon Creek, Austins Creek as well as several unnamed streams blew out sending debris flows down on to the alluvial fans below and into the lake. County roads were damaged, bridges were destroyed, homes crushed, properties buried in logs and mud. A woman woke up found her house was floating in the lake.

After the slides it was clear that the majority of slides were the result of poorly constructed logging roads and poor logging road drainage. Public opinion toward forest practices shifted very hard against the industry. Legal actions took place, most were settled before trial. Forest practice standards were improved. Particular attention was directed at logging road construction methods, logging road stream crossings and how roads were maintained and what to do about old abandoned roads. And keep in mind that this was before fisheries impacts needed to be better accounted for.

Lake Whatcom Land Exchange

Lake Whatcom is the drinking water source for approximately half of the residences of Whatcom County. After the slides the Whatcom County government expressed an interest in getting the lands under public ownership. This purpose was two-fold: 1) it was felt that the state would manage the lands better than private timber companies thus reducing the risk of debris flows and damage to the lake and 2) getting the land into public ownership would reduce the risk that lands would be developed.

The County entered into an agreement with the State Department of Natural Resources where the County paid the costs associated with the State exchanging forest board lands with private forest holdings in the Lake Whatcom watershed as well as some other sites within the Chuckanut Range south of Bellingham. The State Board of Natural Resources with encouragement from the Department of Natural Resources approved the exchange. For DNR, it allowed for larger blocks of land to be consolidated for easier management not only in the Lake Whatcom watershed but also in other areas. Part of the agreement between the County and State was that a forest management plan specific to Lake Whatcom would be developed. This agreement and the exchange took place in the early 1990s. 

The First Forestry Plan for Lake Whatcom

While there was an agreement between Whatcom County and the Department of Natural Resources to develop a forest management plan for Lake Whatcom together, such planning never took place. In my view this was not really the fault of the DNR. The DNR did develop a watershed analysis with specific prescriptions for timber harvests on the State managed lands in the watershed. Watershed analysis does have a public component. For whatever reason once the land exchange had taken place the county paid little attention and never participated in the watershed analysis process. Nor did the City of Bellingham.

In 1997 the DNR began conducting timber harvests in the watershed using the adopted watershed analysis. Except for a few minor private timber harvests in the watershed, there had been little forestry activity in the watershed since 1983. Hence, there was a strong public reaction to the renewal of large scale timber harvests. At that point the DNR attempted to do public out reach to alleviate concerns. I will note that I attended one of those meetings and will say that I felt a bit bad for the DNR. Up until actual harvests began, the local residences, County government and city government had paid little attention to the management planning.

Development of the Second Lake Whatcom Forestry Plan

Issues regarding water quality in Lake Whatcom had evolved significantly since the land exchange had taken place. There was a growing awareness that the lake water quality was in decline. That decline was primarily the result of Bellingham allowing nearly complete urbanization of the north end of the lake where the north basin of the lake is shallow and very sensitive to phosphorus loading. The second basin in the lake under county jurisdiction had also had significant residential development and it too was showing declines in water quality. And though most of the damage was at the north end of the lake, the entire lake was becoming impacted.

Hence, forestry on public lands by the DNR was not well received in the local community. The question of whether additional protections should be applied on the public lands in the watershed was raised. The DNR said no - that watershed analysis was enough.

A few community members thought differently. Linda Marron and Jamie Berg began an effort to require the DNR to place greater protection within the Lake Whatcom watershed. This required a change in State law. No small task, but with support from Conservation Northwest and local State Legislators Keli Linnville and Harriot Spanel as well as Jim Buck from the Olympic Peninsula, the State Legislature passed a two bills requiring the DNR to develop a specific Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan. In the mean time no timber harvests were allowed with the watershed on public land.

A committee was formed to assist the DNR in development of the plan and the plan went through a lengthy Environmental Impact Statement process. The Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan did go beyond the typical forest practice rules and built on the previous watershed analysis. The primary differences between the Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan and standard forest practices are 1) road construction is not allowed across unstable slopes and 2) All streams including ephemeral drainages must be buffered from harvest. There are other differences as well, but in the big picture these two were the biggest differences and deviate the most from standard forest practices.

The New Plan and New Concerns

The Committee and the DNR completed work on the Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan in January 2004. The Board of Natural Resources received the plan and were scheduled to vote on the plan in April 2004. The Board punted and took no action. The Board really did not like the plan. They did not like the fact that the State Legislatures had dictated new forest practice rules specific to a single watershed. They did not like the impacts to trust land revenue generation. They did not like the additional management costs.

Months went by with no action. Letters from Whatcom County were misinterpreted. State politics and posturing had frozen the adoption of the plan. In October 2004 Whatcom County filed a lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court against the Board of Natural Resources and the Department of Natural Resources. At the next Board meeting the Board of Natural Resources passed the Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan.

The Lake Whatcom Reconveyance Concept

Adoption of the landscape plan raised some fundamental questions regarding forest management and trust revenue issues for Whatcom County, the DNR and the Board of Natural Resources. The final steps for adoption were a bit bruising. The adoption of the Landscape Plan was not the end of the process. Threats to the landscape plan were multiple:

1) In adopting the Landscape Plan, the Board added extensive language regarding assessing the plan and reporting on the plan that clearly stated an intent to end the plan. One reason the County filed the lawsuit was language in a DNR proposed resolution to the Board that would establish an end date to the plan.

2) The Board of Natural Resources gave clear direction for the DNR to explore options to end following the plan.

3) Skagit County and the Mount Baker School District filed a lawsuit in an attempt to have the plan over turned. This lawsuit was supported by timber industry folks as well as other counties.

4) Briefings filed by the State in defense of the Plan were such that it was very unlikely that the State would defend the plan. Perhaps most telling - during initial arguments the State attorney sat at the same table as the attorney bringing the lawsuit against the State while intervening attorneys sat at a separate table.

5) DNR staff began an active lobby effort to attempt to get the State Legislature to pass legislation dismantling the Plan

6) DNR staff started negotiations with at least on private timber company to exchange forests trust lands out of the watershed.

With these various threats against the protections required by Landscape Plan, Whatcom County began considering taking over management of these lands as a large forest reserve park. The County could have simply requested reconveyance at that time, but decided that the best approach would be to do an additional land exchange between the various State Trust lands in the watershed and the Forest Board lands in the watershed with the idea that a blocking up the Forest Board lands as a coherent block and the State Trust lands as a coherent block would make better sense for management of the forest preserve park and State Trust lands.

Steps Towards Reconveyance

The County passed a budget line item to fund the process of an intertrust transfer in late 2006. In late 2007 the DNR and the County reached an agreement to work together on the trust land transfers. A final agreement between the DNR and Whatcom County was approved in early 2008. It took until 2010 before a final contract approving the work necessary was approved by the County Council.

The needed assessments of timber value and surveys were completed in 2011 and the proposed intertrust exchange was presented to the Board of Natural Resources in October 2011. The Board .... punted (washington-state-board-of-natural). The Board wanted to know if Whatcom County really still wanted to complete the reconveyance.

Yes, Whatcom County Really Wants a Park

In late May of 2012 the Whatcom County Council voted 5-2 whatcom-county-council-moves-forward to send a letter to the Board of Natural Resources essentially saying that yes, Whatcom County wants to take over management of the County Forest Board Lands in the Lake Whatcom watershed.

One of the potential snags in support for the park involved the Mount Baker School District. There was an issue of lost revenue to the school district. The loss was frequently was presented as a much larger loss that it really is, but regardless the County Council felt a fair bit of sympathy to this rural school district. The problem for the County was there was no means to gift money to the district. Whatcom Land Trust stepped in and arranged an anonymous donation to the District that far exceeds the forest revenue the District would have received and can be utilized in a much more flexible manner. This generous contribution won over the District's support for the park.

The Last Steps

The issue now will go before the Board of Natural Resources - likely in July. The Board has an option to approve or not approve the intertrust transfer between Forest Board lands and State Trust lands. Once the exchange is approved the Board must approve the Reconveyance.

Editorial Note

I tried to present this history in a fairly neutral manner. But anyone that has followed this would never really believe what I presented as neutral. I first became involved in public lands forestry issues in 1998 when I was asked by Linda Marron and Jamie Berg to review a forest road proposal by the DNR. I wrote a report on that proposal and testified at the State Legislature hearings on the Lake Whatcom bills. I also served on the Lake Whatcom Landscape Committee. My interpretations of the various threats to the Landscape Plan presented above led me to believe that the best solution to public forest land management in the Lake Whatcom watershed was reconveyance.

I whole heartily supported the Reconveyance and express great appreciation to those that supported this idea and have brought it so far forward with particular mention to:

Jamie Berg and Linda Marron who would not let an issue go;

Conservation Northwest that provided technical support throughout with particular efforts by Lisa McShane, Mitch Friedman and Seth Cool;

Dewey Desler, Whatcom County Administrator who reacted with great enthusiasm to the idea when it was first suggested;

Pete Kremen, Whatcom County Executive and then later County Council person steadfastly supported the Landscape Plan and then put all his political efforts into supporting the park plan;

Mike McFarlane, Whatcom County Parks Director managed the transfer process and park planning to perfection and became the best possible authoritative spokesman for the park;

Whatcom Land Trust and Rand Jack as well as the anonymous donor, they stepped up and resolved the issue of revenue concerns at the Mount Bake School District;

Laurie Caskey-Schriber, Carl Weimer and Seth Fleetwod, Whatcom County Council members that supported the Park idea from the very beginning in 2006 - the park would never have moved forward without their unhesitating support;

Ken Mann, Whatcom Council supported moving forward with the park throughout his tenure on the Council

And lastly and in a way the most satisfying: Sam Crawford and Kathy Kershner, Whatcom County Council members. Both supported moving forward with the contract for the intertrust exchange and in a way Kathy Kershner said it as well as anyone when she voted for the park “It’s going to be a beautiful place for generations that will come after us to go to and recreate,” she said, “and I think that’s important that we sometimes do things just because it’s a beautiful area and we want to keep it that way.”  


Bob in the Pacific Northwest Wilderness said...

Thank you Dan. A very good summary.

I knew the two women who where most severely threatened by the 1983 flood: Barbara snow and Dr Margaret Aiken.

Margaret "rode" her bed in the rubble of her house out into the middle of the lake. Although some accounts have her swimming back to shore, my memory of her account was that after about 2 hours she was rescued.

Barbara Snow sought refuge with a neighbor.

Bob Aegerter

David Stalheim said...

What a great review, Dan. I'd encourage you, with help from your friends, to write this up in a paper and get it in the library. In 20 years, people might forget how much time, commitment, passion, perseverance and political will it took to make history.

Paul Anderson said...

Excellent write up Dan and thank you too for all that you and Lisa did over the years. And thanks to council members past and present that have the foresight to protect these lands.