The Park in RealityPermalink +
Wed, Jul 30, 2008, 3:23 pm // g.h.kirschRand 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.
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