Friday, September 14, 2007

More Reconveyance Feedback: No Secrets or Surprises

No surprises or secrets were in evidence today during my cordial and informative meeting with Lisa McShane at Conservation Northwest offices. Just history, information and explanations to informal questions made up the agenda. After the small flap caused by my first blog on this subject, I really appreciate the care taken to provide me with information that does answer some of my questions. Others present at this meeting may have their own impressions, but here is my take.

The written information supplied was factual, pertinent and interesting, since it summarized 8 years of work by Lisa and others. That is a considerable investment of time in any subject, and may prove to be very helpful in bringing public attention to an interesting, and potentially very effective, way to preserve a large part of the forested trust lands over which the Dept of Natural Resources has management responsibility. It will take me some time to read and digest all this new information, but maybe a brief report is in order now.

The path to accomplish this reconveyance feat is surprisingly simple, but the devil has been known to inhabit the details. Of course there are some potential drawbacks and uncertainties to navigate, which is normal. It certainly is not a 'done deal', or anything close to that in my estimation, but the path and the step-wise milestones on it are pretty clearly in focus.

That point is interesting if for no other reason than to draw a general parallel to other potentially beneficial undertakings that require vision, meticulous planning, finding the right combination of uses and resources, and developing the all-essential public trust and confidence needed to move ambitious projects forward. What 'other beneficial undertakings' you might ask? Oh, things like the Public Facilities District, the Civic Field Improvements, the Waterfront Redevelopment, and of course the Lake Whatcom Reservoir Management Program, of which the reconveyance idea could play a key part.

Preservation of the watershed lands surrounding Lake Whatcom is already an established goal, but it has been frustrating trying to achieve it in a manner that produces measureable results like slowing, stopping and reversing the adverse trends being seen in Lake water quality. The extent that logging -timber harvesting for the polite- has caused or may cause water quality degradation- we don't know, but logging is a risk and therefore a concern.

The Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan, briefly described in an earlier blog, attempted to curtail logging impacts by restricting it, both in its timing and the methods used. The 'Preferred Alternative' that was eventually adopted did actually succeed, but not very dramatically. Had the most restrictive Alternative been adopted -essentially no logging- the DNR would have had needed full compensation for its projected revenues that are dedicated by law to supporting schools and other trusts. This amount is currently estimated at $1.57 million - per year! That's a big sum of money to be raised and paid to the DNR each year, with only a fraction of it coming back to Whatcom County. But, that remains one method that is available to us.

The Reconveyance method may be simpler, cost less, and support a use that is far more protective than many others - careful, essentially passive, outdoor recreation. In fact, that use is the ONLY one allowed -by law- if a reconveyance plan is pursued. Copies of the various RCWs were made available that seem to make this point clear, and the research into this idea was done by a competent legal firm, knowledgeable on this specific topic.

It seems all the 15,700 acres of DNR managed forest lands in the Lake Whatcom Watershed are already owned by Whatcom County. That means much of the proceeds from DNR 'harvests' go to pay for various trusts right here, but not all the proceeds.
Long story short, the County would not have to pay anything to reconvey the land, because it already owns it.
But, the County would have to find ways of compensating itself for the lost revenues that DNR would have paid it from the proceeds of timber harvests. This effectively saves the County paying DNR's management fee -about 22% of the proceeds- plus maybe some other charges. But, those details are still a little fuzzy because the acreage for possible reconveyance needs to be determined with better accuracy.

Still with me? OK, so if the County requests DNR to initiate reconveyance of certain forest lands, it must specify the acreage and general location of trust lands it wants, then pay DNR its survey, legal and other fees to do it. Then it depends on DNR's intergrant attaining approval to proceed further. The DNR would likely consolidate the lands in question to form a larger mass, rather than scattered parcels or checkerboards. These would conform to certain land characteristics, have reasonable proximity to existing access points and hopefully function as a buffer to sensitive areas like streams and wetlands. Somewhere, concurrent in this process, the County must develop a Parks Plan to be reviewed and approved by the State Inter-Agency Committee [IAC]. After all this happens, the County gets to administer its new Parks Reconveyance per its Plan and at its cost. Pretty complicated to be so simple, huh?

But, there are still many questions to ask and get answered before such a reconveyance actually can happen.
Citizens will need to know the character of the Park, what uses it will support, how it will be administered, developed where necessary, maintained, paid for and enforced. Those are all normal things to expect of such an undertaking, but they still must be accomplished.

I think such a plan could work, especially if the Park conceived were to have the essential characteristics and functions of permanent natural vegetation.
After all, Mother Nature's remedy for run-off filtration is a whole lot better and cheaper than anything else!
And, we already know how to do that. Look at the Stimpson Family Nature Reserve and its contiguous preserved areas as an example.

Now that I know more about reconveyance, it seems like a good idea that deserves a try. Why not take the next step and see what is possible? If that doesn't succeed we haven't lost a lot in my view. As long as the recreation uses that may result from a reconveyance are not as impactful as logging, we are that much ahead of the game. And, if the Park idea should fail after it is established, the forest lands just revert back to DNR.

Also, I found out all the players are public entities; DNR, Whatcom County, Inter-Agency Committee [the state committee that evaluates and prioritizes Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program projects]. That's it. No private interests, unless the DNR finds one to swap it's forest lands with -even steven- before a reconveyance can be done!

More later.
At least this little episode has served some good purpose. Information that was not secret was made available. And, perhaps, some surprises were avoided. Secrets and surprises are not the same thing, but they are closely related, don't you think? There is certainly no obligation or compelling reason here to share -or not to share- any secrets or avoid -or not avoid- any surprises. But why not share and/or avoid? Isn't that just good practice in general?

Information enlightens people by eliminating ignorance. Ignorance about good possibilities is the bane of mankind in my view. Why not share it? I am told the very best software has been achieved by just putting open architecture stuff out there so people can see it and voluntarily improve on it. Public process can serve that same purpose too, but only if we let it!
"I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

-Thomas Jefferson, Author of the declaration of Independence and 3rd President of the United States.