Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”
If Mr. Sinclair were alive today, he might add this corollary: “A consultant’s findings are directly related to the bias of the one paying her bill.”
Take, for example, the wetland consultant hired by Horizon Bank & David Edelstein (HB&E), developers of the Fairhaven Highlands project on Chuckanut Ridge. When asked to determine if any of the Chuckanut Ridge wetlands meet the criteria for Category I mature forested wetlands, the consultant’s findings were so blatantly biased in favor of the developers, I fully expected her memo to conclude with: cha-ching! Her findings: None of the Chuckanut Ridge wetlands are mature forested, and none meet the criteria for Category I.
HB&E’s consultant had no qualms about ignoring the fact that the four largest wetlands had already been determined to be Category I mature forested wetlands in the 1996 Chuckanut Ridge draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) and that the US Army Corps of Engineers already determined that seven of the property’s wetlands were mature forested as recently as April 2006.
Undaunted, HB&E’s consultant opted to play a little shell game with the Dept of Ecology’s definition for mature forest. While referring to the Special Characteristics section of Ecology’s Wetland Rating Form, HB&E’s consultant deceptively substituted Ecology’s definition with one from the Dept of Fish & Wildlife. Seems like an innocent sleight-of-hand until you grasp its impact.
According to question 4.0 of the Special Characteristics (SC) section of Ecology’s rating form, mature forest means: “Stands where the largest trees are 80 – 200 years old OR have average diameters exceeding 21 inches.” (Emphasis added)
HB&E’s consultant replaced the Ecology definition with: “Stands with average diameters exceeding 21 inches.”
Which is correct? Do we take the average diameter of the largest trees - as stipulated by Ecology in the state-mandated wetland rating form - or do we take the average diameter of the entire stand, including (theoretically) all saplings?
I spoke with the Fish & Wildlife mature forest specialist who confirmed there are significant problems with their definition. In fact, the potential results of using an average of the entire stand are so distorted that many old growth forests (those older than 200 years) would not even meet the criteria for the much younger mature forest under this definition.
As the Fish & Wildlife specialist explained, Ecology is the agency responsible for rating wetlands, not Fish & Wildlife, and he deferred to the mature forest definition provided in the Ecology rating form under question 4.0 of the Special Characteristics section (SC 4.0).
Given the confusion and deception surrounding this issue, Mayor Pike directed the city’s Certified Arborist to prepare a wetland tree survey to help determine whether the Chuckanut Ridge wetlands are mature forested. In his report filed January 16, 2009, the city’s Certified Arborist identified 84 trees with diameters greater than 21”. This report has been sent to the wetland specialist at the Dept of Ecology who confirmed that, based on the tree survey and size of the wetlands, these wetlands do meet the mature forested criteria according to the Ecology rating system. Thank you Mayor Pike
Still with me? Here’s where it gets interesting.
When the city’s planning director “quickly reviewed” the Fairhaven Highlands Wetland Tree Survey, he immediately fired out an email to his staff asserting:
1) Even though the report was requested by his boss, Mayor Pike, it “was conducted outside of the SEPA process without the knowledge or any oversight from this office.”
2) The author of this report (the city’s own Certified Arborist), “appears not to have applied the best techniques in applying the City’s unique definition of Mature Forested.”
3) “I am not sure that the author would meet the test of ‘qualified expert’ as defined in the BMC.”
I wonder what our friend Upton Sinclair would make of the planning director having such a hard time understanding that the Chuckanut Ridge wetlands really are mature forested. Why would the planning director’s job depend on not understanding that?
Stay tuned… this has the makings of an electrifying turf battle.