[This is an updated and abridged version of an article published earlier this year in The Wild Cascades, journal of the North Cascades Conservation Council]
Controversy is still stewing at Blanchard Mountain in northwest Skagit County, where the North Cascades Conservation Council (NCCC) and the Chuckanut Conservancy won a major court victory in July 2008 requiring the DNR to complete a full environmental impact statement (EIS) for its logging plans.
The Blanchard State Forest, as it's known by the DNR, contains, by far, the largest unprotected block of maturing coastal forest left in the greater Puget Sound region.
Not only does the area have very high environmental and recreation value to surrounding communities, it's just the kind of forest that global warming experts say should be preserved more widely to help capture and store carbon, while reducing outputs of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Despite a severe budget crunch, the state is spending public tax dollars fighting the Blanchard battle in court, rather than working toward an amicable settlement of the lawsuit. To date, our new Commissioner of Public Lands, Peter Goldmark, has not intervened in the debate, nor exerted the kind of green leadership that was promised during the election campaign. He does insist he’s keeping an open mind.
The latest round at Blanchard Mountain began last December when the previous Commissioner, Doug Sutherland, just before departing from Olympia, filed an appeal of the lower court's decision. Goldmark, or perhaps his advisors, has been unwilling to withdraw that appeal or place it on hold while the parties discuss a potential settlement, thereby forcing conservationists to continue defending the mountain in court.
Much is at stake here. If Goldmark chooses not to act, Blanchard Mountain's roadless character, extraordinarily unique in the Puget Sound region, will be lost. The impacts will be severe for the landscape as a whole and will be immediately felt by tens of thousands of trail users annually. With nearly twenty miles of trails currently, and plans in place for at least ten miles of new trails, it is a critical part of the most heavily used year-round trail system in Northwest Washington.
And these aren't just any old trails in the woods. The five-star hike to Oyster Dome is well known from Seattle to Vancouver. The classic view from the top of a 300-foot cliff would be marred by new roads and logging nearby. A portion of the newly christened Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, extending 1,200 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Continental Divide, cuts through the heart of the Blanchard State Forest. The trail passes through areas the DNR intended to log last year, had NCCC and the Chuckanut Conservancy not slowed the Sutherland juggernaut.
Several other trails, including more than a mile of the Lily and Lizard Lakes Trail, perhaps the most prized forest hike on the mountain, are also on the chopping block.
The Sutherland plan called for barely a shoestring connection between a proposed "core area" on Blanchard and a 2,000-acre wildland within Larrabee State Park immediately to the northwest. This corridor is undoubtedly the best opportunity in the Chuckanut Mountains to secure significant habitat connectivity between two relatively large wild areas. The issue was left entirely unaddressed in the Sutherland plan.
This spring, the Chuckanut Conservancy commissioned a brief economic overview by Earth Economics of Seattle, which found that when direct and indirect economic benefits, such as ecosystem services (like clean water and carbon sequestration), enhanced property values, expenditures by recreationists, and associated tax revenues are taken into account, not logging Blanchard Mountain may be contributing more than $13.7 million in economic benefits each year. By contrast, timber revenues from Blanchard, after expenses, would likely be less than a half-million dollars per year, according to the DNR's own figures.
The argument is often made that our schools depend on these timber dollars to build new infrastructure. Yet the Burlington-Edison School District, the largest single beneficiary of timber revenue from Blanchard State Forest, would barely receive enough money to paint a new gymnasium, let alone build it. Even in good times, timber revenue for the school district has been in the range of about one-quarter of one percent of the annual operating budget. Adding one or two cents to a typical two-dollar construction levy would more than make up for the timber revenue coming off of Blanchard Mountain. Yet conservationists are not asking the DNR to suspend all logging. They are simply asking for better protection than what’s been offered.
We can all appreciate that the new commissioner has his hands full with a wide range of important issues, but prolonging the court battle seems not the best way to make this particular headache go away. It's a hopeful sign that Goldmark claims he wants all voices to be heard, that he wants public resources and the natural environment to be well cared for. The real test is whether he can put those grand intentions to work where it counts.
If he's successful, he'll have plenty of support along the way. The Sierra Club, North Cascades Audubon Society, Bellingham Mountaineers, Coast Watch Society, Chuckanut Conservancy, NCCC, People for Puget Sound, Habitat Watch and other groups are all on record as opposing the Sutherland plan for Blanchard Mountain.
The DNR should drop its appeal and begin work toward developing a science-based plan that responsibly protects much of the mountain. One might hope that with Goldmark's impeccable scientific credentials (he holds a PhD in molecular biology), he could craft a sensible path to resolving the debate by inspiring a new plan for saving Blanchard Mountain. Such a plan could also accommodate a viable working forest, while providing a hedge against forest land conversion and urban sprawl, worthy objectives that have been all abuzz among state lands advocates in recent years. Such a plan would likely enjoy broad public support.
Blanchard Mountain, as PI columnist Joel Connelly wrote in 2008, is "worth fighting for." It is the highest part of the Chuckanut Mountains, the only place in the Cascade Range where substantial foothills extend all the way to saltwater. It harbors the only known coastal nesting habitat in the Puget Sound region for threatened marbled murrelets. The area offers one of the best coastal launch sites in the state for hang-gliders and paragliders. It is adjacent to two of the state's fastest growing urban centers, including a population of a quarter-million within a ten-mile commuting radius.
In fifty years, it could be the last, largest and best example of what the Puget Lowlands were really like before we mucked it all up with pavement and strip malls. It's a gorgeous place. And you can see it from space.
The superlatives ought to mean something.
For more information on Blanchard Mountain or to contribute to the cause, please visit www.chuckanutconservancy.org.
Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark can be reached at (360) 902-1004, or by email at email@example.com.
For more information about the North Cascades Conservation Council, visit www.northcascades.org.
Editor note: Ken has written several NW Washington hiking guides. They are available at NW Wild Books . Local ones are also available at Village Books in Fairhaven and several other local shops.