The Park in Reality

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Wed, Jul 30, 2008, 4:23 pm  //  g.h.kirsch

Rand Jack, long associated with the Whatcom Land Trust and its organizers, has published what he feels are compelling reasons for the County Council to approve and fund the development of a park in the Lake Whatcom watershed. He writes, “Protecting the drinking water for half the residents of Whatcom County is a major reason to support the new park.”

To the contrary, protecting the Lake Whatcom Reservoir is the primary reason to oppose this park.

Rand correctly notes that commercial forestry in the watershed is not the primary cause of deteriorating water quality. Most understand the primary cause is development and its related human activities. Nonetheless he would draw our attention to recent events in Lewis County and imply forest practices in the Lake Whatcom watershed will lead to landslides, and lesser erosion, that will contribute to phosphorous in the lake, and cause water quality to deteriorate.

Again, Rand provides the valuable observation that these events in Lewis County occurred despite a state mandate to control logging on unstable slopes, and landowner promises; the real problem being scant oversight from state geologists who are supposed to help watchdog the timber industry. One should add a Department of Ecology that ignores its mandate to petition Natural Resources for forest practices guaranteed to protect water quality.

And certainly we should ask why Whatcom county isn't in the Superior Court seeking enforcement of forest practice rules, as provided by law, against the DNR, forest landowners, and timber operators; rules that require compliance with all applicable federal and state law with respect to nonpoint sources of water pollution from forest practices.

Frankly, there are so many county, state and federal laws to be employed to protect Lake Whatcom from pollution due to floods or landslides that it would require an entire article of its own to present them all. If the proponents of this park would turn their attention to this enforcement issue, they could actually accomplish something to protect the lake's water quality from past and future forest practices on all the lands in the watershed, not just this small part to be reconveyed.

No, the unfortunate truth is the development and activity that will come with this park can only exacerbate the water quality problems in the reservoir. Anyone who has considered the rest of the county's plans for recreation in the watershed has to wonder how the boat ramps, campsites and so called freshwater trail system will contribute to the protection of water quality.

Protecting Lake Whatcom entails reducing, not increasing, human activity on the lake and in its watershed.

While Rand feels the costs of creating this park are amazingly small compared to the benefits, how should we quantify the cost of all this increased use of the lake and its watershed? And is the cost warranted when the benefits, primarily protecting the reservoir, are achievable without any real costs beyond a reduction in revenues from timber sales.

Rand again acknowledges that, “Stricter logging rules in the watershed have made a dent in problems associated with commercial forestry.” He notes they have not entirely solved those problems. But even stricter rules will make an even bigger dent. And with the trade off again being reduced timber sales revenue, at some point stricter rules and adequate enforcement can solve the problems.

Most critics of this park proposal are concerned that the associated costs are unwarranted given the financial requirements of more important efforts to reverse the deterioration of the reservoir. This has grown to be a substantially larger concern given the county's current and worsening financial situation. It is feared that the headlong drive to develop this park will steal money from more important programs.

Rand tells us the transaction cost to the county will be about $300,000, all of which will be paid from the Conservation Futures Fund, “a fund that cannot be used for other kinds of purposes.”

This is a case in point. The primary purpose of those funds has been the acquisition and preservation of farmland. While acquisition of parkland is not entirely inappropriate, RCW 84.34.240 tells us that amounts placed in this fund may be used to acquire real property, and for the maintenance and operation of any property acquired with these funds. It is less than clear that the $300,000 to be paid for consultants, appraisers and surveyors are a proper use of Conservation Future Funds, or that any of these funds would be available subsequently to subsidize the operations of the park.

And obviously, every dollar taken from this fund will not be available for preservation of farmland.

Even if we believe the annual maintenance costs will only be between $100,000 and $150,000 a year, and even if we ignore the fact that these lands will not be acquired with Conservation Future Funds and thus not an appropriate operational use, the use of these funds for operations is capped at 15% of the annual contribution to the fund from taxes.

If the experience of park managers in Skagit County, operating a similar sort of recreation on lands less than half the size of the proposal here is considered, the operating budget for this proposed park in the watershed is more likely some four times what Rand has been told.

Whatever ones perspective is on this park's efficacy as protection for the water supply of half the county, the question remains, how will it be paid for, and if not from new tax revenues, what programs will we cut?

In early June our county executive proudly told us, “I’m pleased to report that the state of our County is relatively strong, our financial position is solid, and our future bright.” Barely a month later, in the face of an apparently unforeseen budget shortfall, he issued an executive order stating that until further notice all unfilled positions would remain vacant and any current recruitment activity would “cease immediately.”

Shortly thereafter, having estimated the budget deficit at some $5,000,000, his administrative assistant acknowledged, “I think the number is going to grow even larger than that.”

It is time for Mr. Kremen, and the other proponents of recreational development in the watershed, to get realistic. Much has been said and printed of late about taxes and fiscal responsibility. Many have asked that decisions with substantial fiscal impacts on taxpayers be submitted to the voters.

While Rand may recommend the County Council quickly approve this plan, a much more exhaustive appraisal of its real costs and benefits is needed first. And Whatcom County voters might just want to put in their two cents worth.

As a community we are faced with looming financial problems at the same time we are faced with unavoidable expenses to repair the damage development has already done to the lake. This park proposal is most untimely. It is more economical to seek real enforcement of laws in place to protect the lake.

Tom Pratum  //  Wed, Jul 30, 2008, 7:52 pm

Thanks for getting something out on this so quickly Greg. I am really disappointed in Rand - there are glaring errors and omissions in his piece that can only be explained as an attempt to slant the argument to his friend Pete Kremen. Makes me wonder why I do all of that volunteer work for the Whatcom Land Trust - fortunately I can separate the man from the organization.

You point out one of the errors - his reference to the Conservation Futures fund as only being able to be used for “such purposes”. Does that mean he only thinks it can be used for transaction costs for reconveyance? We need to get serious about using the Conservation Futures fund to put private land into conservancy status, not pay transaction costs of taking land out of one public trust ownership and placing it into another public ownership.

A glaring omission from his piece are the costs associated with loss of payment to beneficiaries. I can’t say exactly what that will be, but you can bet that Whatcom County alone will lose at least $200,000 yearly. This is a direct loss from the budget of the general fund and the road fund; no way to cover that up. And, that doesn’t include the losses to the school districts - the Mt Baker School District is certainly not on board the “reconveyance express”.

And, let’s see, we are going to get grants for park development? Where exactly are those going to come from? Neither the state or federal budgets are flush with money just now.

One other point - Rand’s extensive use of the Lewis County situation is embarrassingly disingenuous: the forest practices in Lewis County are on private land. Concern over forest practices on private land is exactly the reason there is so much DNR land in the watershed - the DNR was begged to exchange Trillium’s land out for their own. DNR forest practices in the watershed cannot be compared to the private forest practices of Weyerhauser. If we really want to do something about all forest practices, we need to replace Doug Sutherland with Peter Goldmark in November.

I do think there are some solutions to a few of the park concerns: a dedicated property tax fund for park purposes, and a scaling back of the proposal (as has been suggested by others) would alleviate some concerns.


John Watts  //  Thu, Jul 31, 2008, 12:14 am

We must as second best…take the least of the evils. - Aristotle
————————————————————
The concerns I expressed on May 28, 2008 may have now been addressed, but I have not yet seen them incorporated into a written proposal.
So, until such a plan is presented to the County Council for deliberation and approval we are left with nothing but verbal assurances that again invite us to accept the idea on faith.

Restating the three main concerns:
? Loss of revenues from DNR forestry
? Conservation easements for lake protection.
? Prohibitions on logging.

Where will the funds come from to facilitate the reconveyance, develop the park according to some master plan, and operate it? Are these funds sufficient, available and stable for the longer term?

Where are the guarantees that the reconveyed land is to become a ‘Forest Preserve’, and managed by the WLT in the same or similar manner as the Stimpson Reserve?

The ICT’s [Inter-jurisdictional Coordinating Team] concerns with an older version of the County Parks Plan as reported on 10/19/07 were very substantial. Have these been addressed to the ICT’s satisfaction, with reservoir protection the primary consideration?

Because future adherence to any reconveyance & Parks Plan adopted is essential and needs to be very carefully insured, where are the clear goal statements and guiding principles?

Thomas Jefferson offered two very useful observations;
‘the earth belongs to the living generation’, and
‘no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law’.

It seems to me that the nearest thing to a ‘perpetual law’ in the case of this reconveyance, is a conservation easement, assigned to an outside third party to administer, like the Whatcom Land Trust. How many acres and where? I believe it is necessary to see a clear definition of the land for which the WLT will be asked to provide stewardship, because the this is a key strategy in the advance avoidance of future problems.

Also, a clear definition of which specific lands the County plans to use as active parks, their intended use, level of development and funding needs to be presented. How many acres and where?

With these concerns in mind, it might be appropriate to also name these Reconveyance Parks Lands something like ‘The Lake Whatcom Reservoir FOREST PRESERVE’. This might help denote the lasting concept of relatively benign use.

I do have confidence that the WLT can and will be good stewards of whatever lands to which they are entrusted, providing the County insures the adequate funding in perpetuity.

I have less confidence that the County can and/or will provide the ongoing funding and oversight actually needed to ensure our highest expectations are met. This concern is especially true now, with next year’s projected annual deficit projected to exceed $5 million, and the County’s demonstrated record that it lacks the political will to reliably raise additional revenues.
——————-
“Sometimes it’s easier to understand things than it is to figure them out” - Casey Stengel

No folly is more costly than the folly of intolerant idealism. - Winston Churchill?


g.h. kirsch  //  Thu, Jul 31, 2008, 11:38 am

John,

Mr. Jefferson’s insight regarding laws and constitutions should be extended to include the institutionalized protectors of the public interest, even the WLT. 

While I understand that it is at this point one of the great sacred cows of our community, and many of its accomplishments are to be respected, WLT is no less susceptible to utilitarian rationalization than other institutions.

Consider Rand’s strategic endorsement of Pete Kremen before filings even closed, that, given the timing, was primarily a warning that a challenger could not hope for support from the environmental establishment. 

In our effort to halt the expansion of water service for new development on the north shore and on Squalicum Mtn, we were assured by Rand himself that the conservation easement WLT held on the lands of the Lake Whatcom Residential Treatment Center would be a certain and sufficient impediment to the water district using that land to extend water to developers. “We would never allow it.”

Imagine our shock and disappointment when we learned that the treatment center had granted the water district an easement across their land in return for improved water service.

Confronted with this reality, Rand’s earlier assurances, expressed with such certainty, gave way to explaining why WLT really hadn’t demanded control of the lands to further their conservation or to protect surrounding lands.  The Treatment Center board had required, and WLT allowed them the freedom to do pretty much whatever they thought would be in their best interest, irrespective of the “conservation” impacts.

In the face of this “unperpetuity” Jefferson realized, I believe the best assurance that the lake and its watershed will be protected and preserved is the very selfish interests of the citizens who rely on the reservoir, and the operation and enforcement of laws clearly requiring that protection.

If those citizens choose seriously between protection of their water supply and a park plan that promotes more inappropriate use of the lake and its watershed, we can live with their choice.  We’ll have to!


John Watts  //  Thu, Jul 31, 2008, 4:34 pm

‘No idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered with a searching but at the same time a steady eye.’ - Winston Churchill
——————————————-
Greg, go back and re-read my comment. Then tell me where do you disagree?

I share many of the same concerns you & Tom have voiced, but I can also see where this issue is likely headed. That is the nature of politics! Let those who will need to approve the reconveyance satisfy themselves that any plan adopted is sound and has watershed protection as its demonstrated first goal.

So far, there have been only verbal assurances by people so enamored of the reconveyance idea that they fail to see the downside risks. Make sure these risks are properly addressed -upfront- and not after its too late to matter!

This is not about the WLT or any individual either, other than those charged with the responsibility of exercising due diligence on a large plan that can work if implemented properly. I expect the WLT and Mr Jack see the wisdom of being friendly with any elected leader[s] with whom they must deal effectively. And, a potential land stewardship transaction anywhere near the magnitude contemplated would very substantially increase WLT’s responsibilities.

I do understand -and share- most of the frustrations being expressed, but also believe there are more productive ways to vent this energy than continuing to imagine the worst happening, despite the right questions being clearly raised.

After all, politics is ‘the art of the possible’, and as with the recent Mental Health Tax, sometimes we get results that do go in the right direction -unexpectedly or not.
Since no additional revenues seem to be attached to the reconveyance proposal, that in itself might be a self limiting factor in the amount of development that can be afforded.
——————————————-
Two more from Aristotle:

‘It is just that we should be grateful, not only to those with whose views we may agree, but also to those who have expressed more superficial views; for these also contributed something, by developing before us the powers of thought.’

‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’


g.h. kirsch  //  Thu, Jul 31, 2008, 7:58 pm

John,

As you point out, we are largely in agreement.  To the extent we are not entirely in agreement, it is on the inevitability of the reconveyance, and the grounds for faith in the would be stewards, who as you so diplomatically put it, “see the wisdom of being friendly with any elected leader[s].”

I do bow to your greater experience in “the art of the possible.”  Though I hope avoiding this monumental blunder is still possible.

I have assumed the role of a mere minority back bencher, trying to make sure, “the right questions [are] being clearly raised.”

Given your fondness for the Greeks; here’s one from our old friend Plato:

“The partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question, but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his own assertions.”


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Wed, Jul 30, 2008, 4:23 pm  //  g.h.kirsch

Rand Jack, long associated with the Whatcom Land Trust and its organizers, has published what he feels are compelling reasons for the County Council to approve and fund…

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