Friday, August 8, 2008

Reconveyance & Park Plan: City Council Presentation by Tom Pratum

Because the County Executive's proposal to reconvey DNR Lands to Whatcom County for use as a Park is now working it's way through a process that may lead to its adoption, the Bellingham City Council asked for diverse presentations from 3 individuals, each with a different perspective on that proposal.

These presentations were made on August 4. Presenters included Mike McFarlane, Director of Whatcom County Parks & Recreation Dept, Dave Wallin, WWU Professor of Environmental Science, and Tom Pratum, PhD Chemistry who also teaches at WWU and is a long time advocate for protecting Lake Whatcom.

While the first two individuals also participated in the County's Citizen Committee that was convened to assess this proposal, Mr Pratum was not invited to participate, despite -and maybe because of - his record of being an active and knowledgeable volunteer steward of our Reservoir, who also has been known to offer an occasional criticism when appropriate!

It is for the reason that Mr Pratum's perspectives have not -until now- been given the serious public consideration they are due, that I asked him to allow reproducing his presentation here.
Of course, I would gladly make the same offer to the others if they felt that might be helpful.

Since I believe the City Council is planning to separately deliberate this issue and likely try to support it in some form of their choosing, it is appropriate for citizens to give them the benefit of the community's best thinking - in advance of any City Resolution, suggestions, recommendations, or other actions that might be taken .

First, a few comments of my own:

• I have been a vocal critic of early versions of this proposal because of the manner in which it was announced, as well as the glaring lack of details about planned developments, park uses, funding and mitigating measures to protect this critical watershed.
Others have also been vocal critics along similar lines, including the so-called Interjurisdictional Coordinating Team [ICT], a group of combined County/City staff charged with recommending, implementing & monitoring progress on the Lake Whatcom Reservoir Management Plan, itself a joint effort.

• I have modified my earlier views as some of my concerns seem to have been considered and maybe even addressed. But, I remain a skeptic until I see a much clearer plan that proposes only minimal impacts, and that also contains the funding and written commitments in place to guarantee that the Reservoir will not be further harmed.
But, the devil is in the details, and that's where this process is right now -in the midst of determining those pesky details!
This might become a good proposal that is demonstrably superior to the one is designed to replace, but I'm not yet convinced of that.

• Tom Pratum presents some really good points and with clarity, and some of his suggestions are quite different from what we might have heard before. For example, his suggestion of an outside financial analysis does NOT mean the DNR exercise, nor the sketchy and overly rosy 'guesstimates' the County continues to tout! It means a careful assessment by a competent third party, that addresses more than one hazy scenario. Call it a kind of 'Peer Review' that impartially translates what plans actually mean into realistic costs that are projected over time.
[Note: If I were currently a member of either Council, I would call for such important information before agreeing to any decision to move forward. That is simply called due diligence!]
So, please pay careful attention to Pratum's summary of concerns, as well as his concluding suggestions to help alleviate these concerns.
These are the real meat of his presentation, and do make practical, fiscal & administrative sense.
Just reading this clearly illustrates the depth of thinking inherent in this presentation, and serves to underpin why both the listed concerns and the concluding suggestions are critically important ones.

To: Bellingham City Council, August 4 Lake Whatcom Watershed Committee Meeting

From: Tom Pratum

Re: Reconveyance of Forest Board Land in Lake Whatcom Landscape Planning Area


1. Financial – what are the financial consequences and what effect will they have on other watershed preservation efforts?

* Loss of revenue to taxing districts.
* Park development and M&O costs.
* Use of Conservation Futures fund.
* Lack of an independent financial analysis.

2. Land use impacts – the effect on overall forest practice intensity will be relatively low, so will the park’s impact be greater than the impact of these forest practices?

* Park development
* Transportation/access
* Enforcement issues (off road vehicles, etc)
* Liability issues
* Effect on adjacent land uses (potential zoning issues).

3. Miscellaneous – other reasons it may not make sense to do this.

* Appropriateness of proposed land exchange as a park.
* Timeliness – is this the right time to do this?

4. Suggestions to help alleviate concerns.

Overview of Lake Whatcom watershed forest practices:

The proposal would transfer approximately 8,400 acres of Whatcom County Forest Board land managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the Lake Whatcom Landscape Planning area from trust status to Whatcom County - note that the Landscape Planning Area extends somewhat beyond the watershed and covers 15,700 acres total. Of those 8,400 acres to be transferred, approximately 7,400 are in the Lake Whatcom watershed, with the remainder in the Friday Creek watershed.

These 8,400 acres are currently managed under the Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan, formally adopted in November 2004. Since that time (up to July 25, 2008), there have been 4 DNR forest practice applications covering 293 acres in the Landscape Planning Area as a whole - not all of these have been entirely contained within the watershed boundaries. Over that same time period, there have been 40 approved harvest related forest practice applications that were at least partially in the Lake Whatcom watershed [See Note 1 below]. These 40 applications cover a total of 1330 acres, therefore the four DNR applications make up less than 25% of the total. Note that the forest practice rules imposed by the Landscape Plan on DNR timber harvests are much more stringent than the rules to which private foresters must adhere. Even if the landscape plan were removed, the State timber harvests are conducted in a more environmentally sensitive manner than those on private land due to the DNR’s Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) requirements.

In order to see what effect the proposed reconveyance would have on the current level of DNR forest practices, we need only take a simple ratio of the proposed reconveyance acres to the total currently available for forest practices, and weight that relative to the proportion of the area that is in protected status under the Landscape Plan due to the presence of steep slopes, riparian areas, wind buffers, etc. When such an analysis is done [See Note 2 below] it is found that the current proposal is likely to result in a decrease of 44 acres of forest practices per year if no forest practices are conducted on the land after reconveyance. Of those 44 acres, 39 are within the Lake Whatcom watershed.

What have been the trends of forest practice activity over the past few decades and how do they relate to current water quality issues? To get an idea of how the current level of forest practice activity compares with that of past decades, I have looked for a previous analysis of this activity. In May 1990, the following figure was presented to the Lake Whatcom Forestry Forum. According to the figure, these data come from Whatcom County Planning.

It is apparent from this figure that the average number of acres of forest practices in the watershed was around 1,000 over the period 1987 - 1990. The current level - including those DNR forest practices referenced above - is approximately 400 acres per year. This decrease in forest practice activity has resulted in no concomitant increase in water quality - in fact, water quality has decreased substantially in the last two decades. This calls any strong linkage between forest practices and current Lake Whatcom water quality issues into question.

If no forest practices occur on the reconveyed land, the result of this proposal would be elimination of a portion of the DNR forest practices, conducted to the highest standards in the watershed, and accounting for approximately 10% of total watershed forest practices. Is it likely that reducing the current harvest level in the watershed in this way will result in any apparent water quality benefit?

As a final note: it is disingenuous to link the landslides that happened on private forest land in Lewis County with what may happen on DNR forest land in the Lake Whatcom watershed. Private forest practices are regulated by the same agency as State harvests, but they follow much different rules. To visibly see an example, take a look at the North side of Stewart Mountain where a sharp line of demarcation can be seen between the “scraped earth” forest practices of first Crown and now Sierra Pacific and those of the DNR in their recent North Olson cut. The best thing we can do to prevent more Lewis County like events is to make sure current Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland is removed from office in November.

Financial consequences:

Loss of revenue: Any analysis of revenue loss depends on at least the following 4 factors:

* Acreage of forest practices approved.
* Price of timber when those forest practices are executed.
* Junior taxing districts serviced by the area of the forest practice (location dependent).
* Property tax levy rate of those junior taxing districts at the time the timber is cut.

Due to the uncertainty of the factors involved, it is not easy to say what the loss of revenue will be. However, we can look at a recent DNR timber sale in the watershed to get an idea of some real numbers. The “Look North” timber sale has occurred in the furthest North part of the DNR holdings on Lookout Mountain. Access to this timber sale is via a road across from Sudden Valley gate 13. In this timber sale, 47.3 acres of Whatcom County Forest Board timber were sold [See Note 3 below] for $829,598 (February 2008). This timber has been partially, but not entirely cut as of this writing. If we assume that the DNR Forest Development Account receives 25% of the proceeds, this leaves approximately $622,000 [See Note 4 below] to be distributed by the Whatcom County Treasurer to the junior taxing districts serving the location of this sale. This distribution follows that for property taxes, with the exception of fact that there is no deduction for fire protection. Based on the location of the sale [See Note 5 below] the following distribution is obtained: Bellingham School District: $222,000, County General Fund: $74,000, County Road Fund: $97,000, Port: $22,000, Library: $24,000, State General Fund and other recipients: $183,000. Thus, the sale of an amount of timber similar to, but somewhat larger than that we would expect to be harvested on the reconveyed land under current management, results in substantial funding for a number of taxing districts - over $170,000 directly to Whatcom County. Even if some of these districts forgo payment in the event the land is reconveyed, the impact to their budgets is a real cost that must be accounted for.

Park development and M & O costs: Development is estimated to be in the $millions. While grants may provide part of the funding, matching will be required in order for the grant applications to be competitive. Grant funding is unlikely to provide for all development costs - especially in the current era of very tight state and federal budgets. For M&O costs, we only have estimates provided by Whatcom County Parks of on the order of $150,000 per year.

Use of the Conservation Futures Fund: According to RCW 84.34.240, “Amounts placed in this fund may be used for the purpose of acquiring rights and interests in real property pursuant to the terms of RCW 84.34.210 and 84.34.220, and for the maintenance and operation of any property acquired with these funds.” While RCW 84.34.210 envisions using the funds for fee simple acquistion, and RCW 84.34.220 concerns using the funds to acquire development rights, RCW 84.34.240 restricts the amount of these funds that can be used for maintenance and operations to ”fifteen percent of the total amount collected from the tax levied under RCW 84.34.230 in the preceding calendar year.”

Reconveyance is not a fee simple acquisition - clearly, the Conservation Futures fund cannot be used for M & O of the reconveyed land. Can the Conservation Futures fund be used for any purpose with regard to reconveyance - including transaction costs, which are currently budgeted (2007 - 2008) from the Parks general fund budget?

The Conservation Futures fund is the only fund Whatcom County currently uses for land acquisition, and it must be available to fund acquisition of watershed, agricultural and other lands in the county.

Lack of an independent financial analysis: If we had an independent financial analysis, such as was done in regard to the merging of the City of Bellingham and the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District, then many of these questions would be settled. However, Whatcom County has made no attempt to have such an analysis conducted.

It is very significant that a number of county departments have recently been asked for substantial budget cuts in the 2009 - 2010 budget cycle. For example, Parks has been asked for a $575,000 budget reduction. Planning and Development - responsible for enforcing watershed development regulations - has been asked for a whopping $1.5 million cut. The county will lose revenue as a result of this proposal, and it will incur additional costs - how will these revenue losses and costs be borne?

Land use impacts: The designation of the reconveyed land as park, and the increased recreational use of the watershed that will result, will have both direct and indirect impacts. Among these:

Park development impacts: Without a conservation easement, there is nothing to stop a future incarnation of county government from building watershed damaging parks facilities. These might include, but would not be limited to: asphalt parking lots, large scale boat moorages and launching facilities, community centers, and shooting ranges. Similarly, operational decisions - such as the allowance for camping, fires and off-road vehicles - need to be protected against.

Transportation and access: The proposed park area will be serviced primarily by Lakeway Drive, and Lake Louise Road on the Lookout Mountain side, and by North Shore Road on the Stewart Mountain side. Lakeway and Lake Louise are already severely impacted corridors. There is bus service along Lake Louise road that will allow folks to use non-automotive access. Additionally, there is the potential for access from Samish Way. The Stewart Mountain side is an entirely different story. Here, park users will access the park by driving all the way to the end of North Shore Road; there are no reasonable possibilities for other access. There is no bus service - all trips will be by car (or possibly boat), and this area will be impacted.

Enforcement: As a frequent visitor to both of the areas proposed for reconveyance, I can say there are already enforcement issues with regard to off-road vehicles, illegal trail building, and fires. Responsibility for policing these areas will rest with county government after reconveyance, and this is another cost to be accounted for.

Liability issues: Not only will Whatcom County assume liability for current uses of the reconveyed land after this proposal is executed, but they will assume liability for past uses. When there were previous slides in the watershed in 1983, residents sued the then owners of the land and were paid substantial sums - not because those owners were responsible, but because they owned land where previous forest practices issues were unresolved. This liability concern is one of the reasons reconveyance was not requested on this land after the land trade in 1993 that brought a large part of the current DNR holdings into the watershed.

Effect on adjacent land uses: If this land becomes a park, it will, at some point, be rezoned appropriately. Land that is no longer forest resource land used for commercial forestry will eventually lose that designation. If this were to occur today, this land would be rezoned - after reconveyance - Recreation and Open Space (ROS), as are all large Whatcom County Parks with the exception of the Canyon Lake Community Forest (which has been inaccessible for the past 2 years). What will this designation do to motivate adjoining land owners to request de-designation of their forest land? Could this reconveyance request be reconfigured to make such requests less-likely? By reconfiguring the request, could we reduce the possibility of development of adjoining rural lands?

Miscellaneous issues:

Appropriateness of the proposed land exchange as a park: While not everyone would agree with me, I personally think the Lookout Mountain park area makes sense. Transportation to the site is already impacted by Sudden Valley, it has bus service, it has logical connections to other park areas (e.g. Stimpson, Olsen, and Squires Lake). The park area would have many users who reside in Sudden Valley and would not travel through the watershed. There would be adjacent land use issues with regard to Trillium’s Galbraith Mountain area - this land should be targeted for acquisition with Conservation Futures funds.

The Stewart Mountain area makes no sense as a park. The only reasonable access is via North Shore Road, and there is no bus service - park visitors will drive over 10 miles through the watershed on their way to the park, as they now do for the North Lake Whatcom Trail. Additionally, there is a large utility corridor down the middle (the BPA right-of-way). If the reconveyance were reconfigured toward the Olson Creek area, some of these issues would be reduced, and the utility corridor would be avoided. Additionally, the Olson Creek area already has a substantial trail system, and more of that land is available for timber harvest, so the impact on forest practices would be greater if this area were reconveyed after appropriate intergrant transfers.

Timeliness: There is no reason reconveyance has to be executed now. The current configuration of DNR land in the watershed has been in place since 1993 - reconveyance could have occurred at any time in the past 15 years, and will continue to be available into the future. The land configuration of the current proposal comes from the DNR and reflects their desires with regard to intergrant transfers [See Note 6 below] rather than those of this community. The current DNR administration is the most environmentally unfriendly we have had in decades. This November, there is a good chance we can replace Doug Sutherland with Peter Goldmark. With such a change at the top, it is likely that we would see reduced timber harvest in the watershed under the current landscape plan, or, if the pursuit of reconveyance is still desired, it could be reconfigured to better serve the needs of this community.

Suggestions to help alleviate concerns:

* Conservation easement to prevent future governmental entities from making bad land use and operational decisions - for example, not only should damaging parks facilities be prohibited, but potentially damaging parks activities, such as off-roading, camping and building fires, should also not be allowed. The concept of a conservation easement that meets some of these requirements has been recommended by the “committee”.

* Financial analysis of the proposal by an independent, outside entity (such as FCS Group).

* Dedicated revenue stream (e.g. small property tax levy) to pay all costs of proposal (as determined above) - including losses to junior taxing districts. Only with a dedicated revenue stream can we be sure these costs are not borne by reductions in other programs.

* Scale proposal back to the Lookout Mountain area only. The Stewart Mountain area makes little sense as a park, and in the future, with a more environmentally friendly DNR administration, this may be reconfigured to make more sense. Scaling the proposal back will also reduce costs, greatly reduce transportation impacts, and will remove the objections from the Mt Baker School District. There is no rational reason the current DNR administration would object to the scaled down intergrant transfer required in this situation.


1. Taken from the DNR Forest Practices Application Review System (FPARS), 2004 - 2008.

2. A simple calculation is done as follows: average DNR harvest per year in Landscape Planning Area = 293/3 = 97.6. Average harvest in reconveyed area assuming equal likelihood of harvest = 97.6*8400/15700 = 52 acres. Taking into account that more protected area under the Landscape Plan lies on Forest Board Land (60% opposed to 53% of Landscape Area as a whole (DEIS 2003; estimate based on Fig 5 on pg 122 and the consideration of Forest Board and Common School Trusts, which account for 84% of the land area)), and assuming intergrant transfer does not change this = 52*0.4/0.47 = 44 acres. The portion of this that is within the watershed = 44*7400/8400 = 39 acres.

3. Note that there is some incorrect information in your council packet regarding this, and the other timber sale that is in the area proposed for reconveyance (White Chantrelle). Both of these have been approved, and sold to Sierra Pacific.

4. This is close to the figure - $658,000 - given to Mike McFarlane by the DNR on March 20, 2008 as an estimate of the average yearly revenue obtained by county taxing districts from Forest Board Land in the Landscape Planning Area (3/17/2008 memo). It differs greatly from the figure of $185,000 given in your council packet.

5. The land covered by this sale is in tax code 1006, which determines this distribution.

6. The Board of Natural Resources was briefed on this exchange initially at their November 2007 meeting. A reading of that discussion is instructive. Among the revealing statements: a question from Jon Kaino, wondering “....if we would get the non 01 trust lands out on the perimeter where we can actually harvest them?” (this was answered affirmative by DNR Land Steward Bruce Mackey - note that “non 01” refers to other than Forest Board lands).