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Sat, Mar 29, 2008, 7:37 pm // g.h.kirschIt's time for straight answers to critical questions relative to converting a large portion of the watershed from forestry to a park. If you're on the fence, mull this over.
By way of background, Pete Kremen, Dan and Lisa McShane and Mitch Friedman have for some time been working on a plan that would convey back certain lands that Whatcom County earlier transferred to state management for the county's benefit. During the past election campaign the plan was proposed to ask the state to return a little more than 8,000 acres to county management. Of this, some 3,000 acres is considered suitable for the future harvest of timber.
This request is only allowed under the very narrow condition, that the county will use the lands as a park.
The proponents recommend the transfer, and change in use, in large part to protect Lake Whatcom from the impacts of forestry (though this is not a legitimate reason for the state to transfer them to county management). But they also believe that this recreation area will be a significant addition to our existing park system, bring great enjoyment to those members of the community who enjoy hiking, kayaking and camping, and will attract other recreationists, increasing tourism in Whatcom County.
Critics of the plan have expressed concern that the cost to the county is disproportionate to the benefits for the lake; and assuming that public funds for lake protection are limited, a park is not the highest priority use of those funds.
There is concern that the impacts from increased recreation in the watershed, and related development, will be as great or greater than present forestry uses.
And there is a fear that creation of a park in the commercial forest zone could lead to rezoning of the area, and adjacent lands, that would in the long run be detrimental to the forest industry and lead to other developments with substantial negative impact to the watershed and on the reservoir.
COSTS, BENEFITS & PRIORITIES
While there are many factors to be considered in estimating how much revenue will be lost to the county and beneficiaries of these trust lands, what the capital costs of developing the park, its trails and other facilities will be, and how much ongoing expense will result to manage the land and the associated recreational facilities, it appears that the park could mean nearly a million dollar a year negative change in cash flow to the county.
Admittedly, this may eventually be offset by increased revenues from tourism and increased tax revenues as land uses change from forestry to other uses as a result of creating the park.
If we are to look at the proposal as an investment in the preservation of water quality in the lake, and given that development, with its associated impacts, has been identified as the primary cause of the reservoir's deterioration, would you choose to spend a million a year to remove the impact of less than 50 acres of forestry each year, or use the money to acquire development rights in the watershed?
There is some debate whether future forest practices, regulated henceforth under the recent Landscape Plan, will have the same level of impact that private landowners created for the lake and the watershed. Some feel that the impact of the prospective timber harvesting under current DNR management will be minor. A change in managers today will not remove any potential landslide risks created before the Landscape Plan was implemented. Creation of new risks is substantially reduced because of implementation of the plan.
In weighing the impact of forestry on the lake, it is not appropriate to compare it to no activity. When these lands become a park, there will be related traffic in the watershed transporting park users, as well as the impacts in the park itself from increased human and animal use of the area. It is not clear how the county will respond to public demand for access to the park, but the more recreational use that is allowed the more inappropriate the use is under current zoning.
There is likewise a phenomenon in real estate that lands near parks and similar amenities increase in value. This increase in value reflects increased demand. The fact is, more people will desire to live nearby in the watershed, and our development industry will seek to satisfy that demand. This will in turn drive up the cost of the development rights we need to acquire to protect the reservoir.
What will the net reduction in impacts on the lake, if any, be? Is it worth the price in dollars or the risk in loss of protection afforded by current zoning?
Should we make these lands more desirable for development, or postpone consideration of the park plan until we have removed the possibility of ongoing residential development in the watershed?
There is a great deal of discussion based on the assertion that the Department of Natural Resources is a poor manager of these lands and that turning control over to Whatcom County will mean better management.
When one examines the history of Whatcom County's management elsewhere within the watershed and other unincorporated areas, it is not particularly clear we would be better off. The county has tended to be reluctant to stand in the way of development. Some would say they are active proponents of it, interpreting our codes and plans to facilitate private interests at the publics expense.
Similarly, it is not clear that the 3,000 acres that are anticipated will be removed from forestry won't still be logged under the county's management. Pete Kremen has told foresters and mill owners not to be concerned, local control won't affect their businesses. At the same time he tells members of the environmental community that logging will halt. Both statements can't be true.
Since the late 1990's there have been ongoing discussions between the county and interested parties with nearby forest holdings about long term rezones of these properties and other lands designated and zoned for commercial forestry.
The land under consideration for this new park is located between substantial amounts of privately owned forest land. Perhaps the most significant of these owners is Trillium and its related entities with substantial holdings and options on both sides of the proposed park.
So ask yourself, how much room do you want to give the likes of Pete Kremen and David Syre to operate in the watershed?
ZONING & ADJACENT LANDS
As long as these lands remain zoned for commercial forestry no development is possible. (although there has been an effort by the same interested parties to amend that zoning to allow one residence per 80 acres which, with clustering, could lead to new residential development in the commercial forestry zone) Everyone is aware of the pressure by the county and speculators in rural forest lands to use them for high end residential development and ignore the general protections in the zoning code to keep those RF lands part of our historic rural character and part of the land base supporting our forest industry.
There are things that could bring about a change in that protection. Obviously a change in the makeup of the county council could lead to rezones and then, year after year, step by step, acre by acre, conversion of the forest to low density development will proceed.
This would be more likely if landowners adjacent to the proposed park could argue that forestry was no longer a viable use of their land. Or if they wanted to change their zoning to allow development of resort communities near the park, around the lake, in the watershed, they could demand reclassification that would allow similar uses compatible with the newly allowed park in the commercial forest zone.
The reality of this possibility was underscored recently when Mitch Friedman proposed to open a discussion of the circumstances in which Trillium properties should be allowed to develop nearby.
The county is walking a thin line between its Comprehensive Plan, its current zoning regulations and its yet to be completed Parks Plan. How this proposed park will fit into this matrix has yet to be determined. On one hand the request to have these lands returned to county control rests on there becoming a park. On the other, the current zoning prohibits the land from being used as a park.
Hence the struggle to describe this creature to fit one definition of a park without fitting another. While we struggle to accomplish this, it is imperative that we avoid rezoning, or being challenged for not rezoning.
So ask yourself, when is a park not a park? How much fooling around will go on before we discover we aren't fooling anyone but are the one's being fooled?
Just as fragmentation of agricultural land threatens our farming industry, to an even larger extent, forestry requires large, contiguous tracts of lands buffered from nearby incompatible uses and fire hazards. Residential development, even a park, will place the industry under pressure. Should the industry falter or collapse, forest land owners, particularly those who are speculating on more lucrative uses for their lands, will want less restriction.
Such a downward spiral will be devastating to an industry that, properly managed and controlled, ultimately could be the best protection for the lake. Conservation of working lands, and the preservation of resource based industries, in this instance forest lands devoted to growing trees for long-term commercial lumber production, is a primary goal of growth management.
Just after passage of the GMA, in1991, in designating lands for long-term commercial timber production, certain factors were to be considered: (a) The proximity of the land to urban, suburban, and rural settlements; (b) surrounding parcel size and the compatibility and intensity of adjacent and nearby land uses; (c) long-term local economic conditions that affect the ability to manage for timber production; and (d) the availability of public facilities and services conducive to conversion of forest land to other uses.
It is hoped that the legislature's insights, that these considerations were critical to the preservation of the forest industry and conservation of the lands it relies on, would temper our enthusiasm for converting these previously designated resource lands to a park.
It is for good reason that parks are not a permitted use in the commercial forest zone. The attempt to find another descriptive by "park" proponents, such as forest preserve, is certainly evidence of the appropriateness of the prohibition. The county has rezoned such areas where they have created them in the past.
In 1994 the legislature found that it is in the public interest to identify and conserve productive natural resource lands that can be managed economically and practically for long-term commercial production of timber. Achievement of the GMA's goal of preserving natural resource industries requires the conservation of a land base sufficient in size and quality to maintain those industries and the implementation of land use restrictions that discourage incompatible uses of designated forest resource lands.
Whatcom County has one remaining lumber mill. There is another mill just north of Mt. Vernon as well. Without a forest land base adequate to support these mills, the industry, and the jobs associated with it, will be lost. What will the land be used for then?
US & THEM, NOW & THEN
It is striking how the too human tendency to sacrifice the needs of others and assert our own preferences has driven discussion of this park plan to date.
Little concern has been expressed for the lost revenues that support schools and other laudable public purposes. No discussion of where and how, or even if we need try, to replace the lands lost to an industry that has been a foundation of our community and long an engine of our economy. Little thought has been given to prioritizing our goals, and spending the sums this park will require on more effective protection of the lake and its watershed.
How much consideration is being given future generations who will have fewer employment opportunities. Working in resource based industries is not glamorous, and probably not a career that many potential park patrons aspired to, or would choose for their children. But, without forgiving all the horrendous failings in the past, this is our history. These are authentic people. This is a real and important industry.
Are we lacking for recreational opportunities? Aren't these lands open for hiking now? Is the real purpose of this request to create a park? Do we really want a park in the watershed? And we must ask, who will be the real beneficiaries of this change, and what will it have cost us in the end?
Convincing an inadequately informed public that they are protecting their water supply, stopping those rotten loggers, and at the same time getting a nice new park, may turn out to have been a brilliant strategy by those looking to circumvent an enormous impediment to development in the watershed.
Ask yourself if you think these landowners and their representatives intend to reduce sprawl, protect the lake, preserve our rural lands and prevent the suburbanization of the forest.
Do you think the county has suddenly become the protector of the lake and the opponent of development in the watershed?
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