Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Lake Whatcom: An October Surprise?

Lake Whatcom: An October Surprise?

A number of people, including me, have heard Pete Kremen drop a few hints about his idea of a 'reconveyance' of forest properties to ostensibly protect Lake Whatcom. Not many details, mind you, just enough to titillate.
What is Pete really up to? I mean really?
Sounds like a grand scheme that might make him -and maybe others- seem a hero, doesn't it?
Think we might be hearing more about this anytime soon, say maybe next month?
Think certain candidates might benefit from such an October surprise?

Details are sketchy, but here are some details on the background involving the Department of Natural Resources [DNR], plus a few questions that may help outline the rationale, and maybe even the form such a reconveyance 'surprise' might take.
DNR owns almost 15,000 acres of forest lands in the Lake Whatcom Watershed, about 47% of the total.
That's a big chunk which is already publicly owned by a State Agency.
But, DNR needs to 'harvest' its lands regularly to return monies to schools and other entities through trusts, by law.
But, harvesting timber in this watershed has become particularly problematic and difficult for DNR with the increased public concerns over protecting our water supply, which happens to be Lake Whatcom.

Not too long ago, our State Legislature accomplished a rare feat, that of agreeing -unanimously- on a measure.
It simply required DNR to establish more stringent Forest Practices for any harvesting done in the Lake Whatcom Watershed.
That bill, sponsored by our Senator Harriet Spanel, gained the support of every member of our legislature at the time, and launched what turned out to be a 3-plus years of deliberation by a stakeholders committee to produce what was termed the Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan.

During this entire time the DNR, under the direction of Commissioner of Public Lands, Doug Sutherland, continuously stalled and tried to frustrate this legislatively directed process.
As this discussion proceeded, it was apparent that DNR didn't want to make any substantial changes, which the agency saw would make its job of returning funds to schools even more difficult than it had become.
The process finally concluded with 4 or 5 'alternate scenarios', from which one was to be selected.

That's when things began to get interesting!
It seems that private forestry owners had been left out of the Landscape Committee deliberations and were frustrated, mad and fearful about what results might be adopted.
They didn't want more stringent rules for DNR because if that happened, they might be next in line for stronger rules.
DNR fueled these fears by its own suspiscion that if a precedent were set for Lake Whatcom, that might spread state-wide, causing them more headaches in meeting their commitment to return funds to public trusts.
Unspoken, was the reality that many private 'foresters' did not plan on remaining true to that label.
They used that cover as a tax advantage until they could get County rezones for development.
Hey, why not convert land valued at a few thousand dollars per acre to lots valued at hundreds of thousands?
After all, the County has been doing that, in concert with Water Districts, for years!

Anyway, the private forestry owners got their turn to review and comment on the Landscape Plan at the end, because Pete Kremen thought they ought to.
The vehicle for this to occur was the Forestry Forum, chaired by County Council member Ward Nelson, who also happens to live in the watershed.
I also served on this committee at the time -along with several others, including Lois Garlick- as the City Council representative.

Long story short, Ward had a technique he had learned about as an Army officer, of using a series of 'pair-wise' comparisons to gain input, from different people with different perspectives, on how to decide which of several choices was better.
I encouraged him to use it and offered to help.

One afternoon, using a computer & projector in the Library Lecture Room, we held a Forestry Forum meeting in which each member was asked to rate the same series of choices that were shown on a big wall screen.
You know, would you prefer this, versus that.
After about 3 hours of discussion, voting and recording the results in special computer software, Ward pushed a button and the results were quickly calculated and flashed on the screen.
They had chosen an Alternate even more stringent than the one put forward by the Landscape Commtitee as 'preferred'!

It felt like all the air went out of the room!
After the results had sunk in and the Forestry Forum folks realized what they had done, their reaction was swift and angry.
Oh no, that's not what we want!
We want the least restrictive one; the one DNR had started with!
None of the more restrictive alternates were acceptable.
End of meeting.

It could have been a prime example of people saying something that seemed politically correct, but really wanting something very different.
A Psychology researcher would have had a field day!

This was a clear case of the group's majority deciding to follow a 'predetermined path to a foregone conclusion', despite what turned out to be a charade of systematically choosing between seemingly simple options.
But, the latter results stood as the strong preference for the majority of the group, so that was that.
And, the Forestry Forum's recommendation was only supposed to be 'advisory' anyway, but was it?
Later, when Pete later asked me, in Ward's absence, to simply summarize these results, I really couldn't do it with a simple yes or no, could I?
Ultimately, DNR did accept the 'Preferred Alternate' as proposed from the Landscape Committee, but it also pulled rank on the County by naming only it's staunch forestry supporters to the oversight committee, instead of the people who were recommended.
That may be how it stands to this day. An exercise in near futility, with a State agency thumbing its nose at the State Legislature and the folks who worked so hard to put into effect more stringent timber harvesting rules in our water supply watershed.
Sad, but true.

It seemed to me at the time, as it still does now, that if DNR was mostly concerned with loss of expected revenues, that could be resolved fairly simply.
Here's how: DNR retains ownership of its lands, estimates its average annual revenues, and proposes that the County and/or City come up with that funding instead of relying on DNR harvests.
That would definitely cut down on the periodic mass-wasting impacts, including slides and muddy run-off, plus grow more mature trees.

I think the number was about $250,000 per year that DNR was counting on.
Paying DNR that amount annually might be doable immediately, at least until another funding method is identified.
Maybe, the City could agree to provide some of these funds from its watershed acquisition surcharge, providing the County did the same from Conservation Futures funds or other source.

Of course later, selective harvesting by DNR might be carefully undertaken to provide some portion of its necessary revenues. But, this would need to be done by some version of the more restrictive rules advocated by the Landscape Committee.
This type of watershed usage -selective harvesting of mature timber- is exactly what was recommended by Dr Richard Horner, a renowned expert in watershed protection!
See how simple this exercise can be?

The above concept is pretty simple, but Pete does seem to have a grander scheme in mind.
If the plan is to shift ownership to the County, what does that help?
Ahhh, that's the stuff heroes are born to do!
Who else owns forest lands in -or near- the watershed?
Well, Trillium does for one, about 2400 acres on Galbraith Mountain that were proposed for rezone, maybe more somewhere else?
Then, there were those folks who made up the Forestry Forum.
Maybe a few relatively 'new' owners of watershed property, too.
How about that Iverson guy who snapped up the 125 acres under the power line the City wanted to acquire?
Isn't that the key link that allows access for a water line to Squalicum Mountain, where all that controversial development is going on?
Wonder if any of these forest lands are part of a reconveyance scheme?
If they are, what property -or persuasive power- does the County have that could possibly interest them in a trade?

Is the County's plan to make a large part of the watershed a recreation area?
Lisa McShane's posts through a Lake Whatcom listserv certainly says that is the plan!
Does she know something the rest of us don't know?
Hasn't the County Parks Director been given the assignment of putting together some schemes and proposals?
What form would such recreation uses take?
Active or passive uses?
Motorized vehicles -either watercraft or land-based?
What about access roads?
What about trails?
How will any recreation scheme be administered?
Who will enforce the rules?
At whose cost?
By what funding mechanism?
See how complicated this scheme can become?
Maybe expensive, too!
Which lands outside the watershed are under consideration for either reconveyance or rezoning as compensation?
What would be their intended use?
Are future zoning changes being considered?
Is there a plan to keep forestry as the primary use of these lands?
Can we trust the County to keep forest lands dedicated to forestry?
Is Doug Sutherland really a long time buddy of David Syre?
I'm sure these questions will be answered in due time, but shouldn't they be answered in advance, rather than after the fact?
Will we be asked to reconsider rezoning forest lands for development to pay for protecting our watershed?
Who's likely to get rich over this?
Just a few questions for Pete and the other would-be instant heroes to answer - preferably before October.