Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Reconveyance & Park Plan: More Feedback & Other Thoughts

This will be a two-part post.

First, Dan McShane's additional feedback to 3 critical questions is shown below.
[Again, Dan's comments are in italics and mine are in bold]

On May 27, 2008, at 7:03 PM, Dan McShane wrote:

John Watts has some more questions.

I am a little hesitant to answer them as John has editoralized my last answers saying a few were defensive and only half answers. Not all these questions can be answered completely as they are to be answered through the process of planning the park and reconveyance. I will attempt to answer them or at least provide some points to consider . As before my answers are italics:

John wrote:

For the record, here are three major concerns that have been shared with me recently by both City & County elected officials:

• Loss of revenues from DNR forestry. Even if there is no legal obligation for the County to provide replacement funds, what about moral or practical reasons for doing so? After all, our local Mt Baker School District does rely partially on these funds.

I won't attempt to start a discussion about the morals of providing funding as that would be a bit deep for me. The County is under no obligation to provide revenue to the trusts including Mt Baker School District or Bellingham School District. However, as noted before there is precedent for set aside national forest land and taxes at the federal level. Payment in lue of taxes (PLT) is provided on an annual basis via a complex formula to States and Counties with national forest land. In addition there has been since 2002 the Secure Schools Fund that provides money to timber counties based on another formula. Prior to the secure Schools Fund Act a formula was used for revenue based on past timber sales on national forest land and the fall off of sales due to spotted owl.

If you want to get into the morals of payments or non payments, do some digging into PILT, spotted owl money and the Secure Schools Funding Act. Every year the level of funding for PILT and SSFA is debated in congress. The formulas can be bizarre creating winners and losers. Overall Whatcom County has come out ahead on owl money and SSFA. All that said it is not a huge part of the County budget.

As for the practicality for some sort of payment scheme to the Mt Baker School District. Yes it would be feasible. It is not a huge sum of money, but I would caution that the forest revenue generated to the local schools is subject to some formulas that can be misleading. If I recall correctly the fiscal impact to Mt Baker will be on the order of $20,000 per year, but that is dependent on some changeable factors. It is tricky because a significant portion of the revenue that goes to the local school school districts is subtrated from another payment the schools get from the state (back to morals dictated by funding formulas!)

Some sort of compensation formula could come from the County and I believe there is some leaning toward that kind of arrangement by the administration. I do know that the City is considering that as an option for proving funding for loss revenue due to the landscape plan.

• Conservation easements for lake protection. If the reconveyance is supposed to better protect the lake than current DNR custody, where are guarantees this will in fact be the case? If the reconveyed land is to become a 'Forest Preserve', as claimed, will it be managed in the same manner as, say, the Stimpson Reserve, with mostly careful and passive uses?

The proposal is for a forest reserve park. Likely on the lines of Stimpson reserve or perhaps better. The final park plan is not done but that is the process that is taking place right now. Proponents for lake protection will likely want to weigh heavily in favor of the perk plans with the lowest impact levels.

• Prohibition of logging. Where in the law are the provisions that prohibit logging after reconveyance? It does appear that logging is still allowed in a reconveyed public park. Is that true?

There are no prohibitions from future logging. However, any future logging revenue generation must be distributed to the trusts as under DNR management and the DNR will get its management fee of 25%. (The 25% may be altered as the logging on park land may have higher management costs) The extent of logging would depend on the kind of park. I would anticipate that in some areas commercial thinning or non commercial thinning would be beneficial in some areas. Any thinning or clearing would have to be per a forest park reserve management plan. Similar programs have been taking place on local National Forest Land. As a member of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie Resource Advisory Committee, we funded non commercial thinning projects to promote better forest stands in key areas of the forest and there have been a number of commercial thinning projects to do the same. The difference between commercial and non commercial depends on a combination of the size and distribution of the trees to be thinned and access.

Perhaps answers to these questions will be forthcoming soon, before the County's Park Plan is adopted -which should precede the reconveyance.
Does anyone know these answers well enough to dare explain them?

Does seem a bit daring answering John's questions. Try not to editorialize too much John.

OK, Dan, but this does seem an appropriate place for a few brief comments:

• The estimate of $20K per yer to the Mt Baker School District seems low, and there are also other junior taxing districts to consider in fairness.

• Most of the Stimpson Nature reserve has a Whatcom Land Trust administered conservation easement on it, as do the Canyon Lake Community Forest, and the Olsen Estate and Anderson Properties adjacent or near Stimpson.
It is important that these new proposed park properties also have strict conservation easements on them to insure the uses intended and agreed to are followed - in perpetuity. Of course, this responsibility does not come free since there are ongoing maintenance costs to the WLT for their services in this regard.

• You seem to confirm that trees can/will be cut on the proposed Parks properties, which means that any Parks Plan adopted will need to contain limits on those provisions as part of the conservation easement(s). With these, the new Parks can be expected to benefit future generations, in perpetuity, but without them, any future reconsideration of the reconveyance could undo all -or part- of the public good intended in the first place.

See how the beginnings of a true dialogue can cut down on too much editorializing?

I appreciate Dan McShane's answers and look forward to other productive exchanges in the future.

OK, now to Part 2:

I've had more time to reflect on the general topic of public process, and how some basic principles might be applied to the specific policy decisions that will come, regarding the Reconveyance & Park Plan.


As I have previously stated, the reconveyance can be a very good idea, provided it is structured properly to insure better Reservoir protection than we currently have with DNR management.
To that end, we are all interested in the answers to these questions, which aren't yet fully known.
But, that is exactly why early public dialogue is so important!

I believe others who have expressed similar doubts, will support this basic idea, provided something like the strict principles outlined above are substantially met. This will not be helped if the County truncates due public process and rushes to an ill-conceived commitment that becomes counterproductive to what is trying to be achieved.
So, perhaps a statement of purpose might be drafted that outlines the desired objectives and clearly states the overarching guiding principles to be followed, regardless of what specifics might later evolve. Such a process would be similar to what the City & Port used in the Waterfront Futures Group visioning exercise.

A few ideas and potential elements are suggested as follows, which might readily convert into a list of 'Whereases':

• Whatcom County commits to a process will be deliberative, focused first on facts, and widely publicized to all stakeholders, with meetings televised and draft Park Plan recommendations published well before any final action is undertaken. Such a generic process can be likened to 'Baking A Cake' [see Blog dated 9/2/07]

• Like the old GE slogan, 'the quality goes in before the name goes on.' In the Petroleum & Chemical Industry there is a concept called 'Process Safety Management', which has as its intent the advance avoidance of problems and various scenarios that lead to them, by a very careful design process. The PSM lesson was learned the hard way, when the Union Carbide explosion & disaster happened in India at Bhopal. In resolving the issue of the re-starting the Olympic Pipe Line, the City sought assistance in applying PSM methodology. While the same level of danger would not be expected for Parks in the watershed, a PSM-type thought process would help insure that all contingencies have been considered in advance.

• Due diligence will be critical, much like the considerations of purchasing a home, car or any other major commitment with long-term financial implications. This is bigger, seeks to help protect the health, safety & welfare of citizens and uses public funds.

• There is value in writing things down! Memory can be fleeting and variable. Records are useful, and people like to read things at their own convenience.

• Future adherence to any reconveyance & Parks Plan adopted is essential and needs to be very carefully insured. Thomas Jefferson in his wisdom, offers two very useful observations on this point; 'the earth belongs to the living generation', and 'no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law'. To me, these statements simply state the obvious, that people will try to do what they want or need in their own time, often with little regard for what happened in history or what needs to happen in the future. That's part of human nature. The nearest thing to a perpetual law in the case of reconveyance, is a conservation easement, assigned to an outside third party to administer, like the Whatcom Land Trust.

• Our military currently operates under a controversial halfway measure called 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'. That doesn't work very well, but no one seems to want to resolve the issue. While the reconveyance & Park Plan has nothing to do with sexual preference, it does need more certainty!
So, how about a policy like 'Do Ask, Do Tell'? After all, that sort of policy is exactly what will generate sort of healthy and positive dialogue most likely to result in a success. No one has all the answers yet, but questions ought to be encouraged, don't you think?
And, answers should be forthcoming in as timely manner as possible, and failing that at least acknowledged. Maybe this type of dialogue can be accumulated and recorded as a list of FAQs that everyone interested can access? Think that might be efficient?


No firm entries yet, except the concept of relatively benign use on any Parks that are approved, and conservation easements on the preponderance of the forest lands that are reconveyed. Conservation easements to be administered by the Whatcom Land Trust. In many respects, this Reconveyance idea resembles the City's Watershed Preservation & Acquisition Ordinance passed in 2000, which also lacked all specifics at that point, but did contain a clear statement of purpose and some essential guiding principles. Over time, that program has evolved pretty much as intended and achieved some things that would not have been possible without it.

If the Reconveyance & Parks Plans can be developed in a manner similar to that described above, I believe that Whatcom County could legitimately claim it as a potentially powerful management response to the issuance of the DOE's TMDL Study.
While quantitative details are presently lacking, these can be provided once the plan is adopted and implemented.

Finally, in deference to the very substantial efforts undertaken by Conservation Northwest, I think any resulting Reconveyance & Parks Plan deserves to be called something like 'The Lake Whatcom Reservoir FOREST PRESERVE'.
Mitch, you ought to like that one!