Re Reconveyance of Forest Board Land in Lake Whatcom by yfr24536

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									To: Bellingham City Council, August 4 Lake Whatcom Watershed Committee Meeting
From: Tom Pratum
Re: Reconveyance of Forest Board Land in Lake Whatcom Landscape Planning Area

Concerns:
1. Financial – what are the financial consequences and what effect will they have on other watershed preser-
vation efforts?
• Loss of revenue to taxing districts.
• Park development and M&O costs.
• Use of Conservation Futures fund.
• Lack of an independent financial analysis.

2. Land use impacts – the effect on overall forest practice intensity will be relatively low, so will the park’s
impact be greater than the impact of these forest practices?
• Park development
• Transportation/access
• Enforcement issues (off road vehicles, etc)
• Liability issues
• Effect on adjacent land uses (potential zoning issues).

3. Miscellaneous – other reasons it may not make sense to do this.
• Appropriateness of proposed land exchange as a park.
• Timeliness – is this the right time to do this?

4. Suggestions to help alleviate concerns.

Overview of Lake Whatcom watershed forest practices:
The proposal would transfer approximately 8,400 acres of Whatcom County Forest Board land managed by
the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the Lake Whatcom Landscape Planning area from trust status
to Whatcom County - note that the Landscape Planning Area extends somewhat beyond the watershed and
covers 15,700 acres total. Of those 8,400 acres to be transferred, approximately 7,400 are in the Lake What-
com watershed, with the remainder in the Friday Creek watershed.

These 8,400 acres are currently managed under the Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan, formally adopted in
November 2004. Since that time (up to July 25, 2008), there have been 4 DNR forest practice applications
covering 293 acres in the Landscape Planning Area as a whole - not all of these have been entirely contained
within the watershed boundaries. Over that same time period, there have been 40 approved harvest related
forest practice applications that were at least partially in the Lake Whatcom watershed1. These 40 applications
cover a total of 1330 acres, therefore the four DNR applications make up less than 25% of the total. Note that
the forest practice rules imposed by the Landscape Plan on DNR timber harvests are much more stringent
than the rules to which private foresters must adhere. Even if the landscape plan were removed, the State tim-
ber harvests are conducted in a more environmentally sensitive manner than those on private land due to the
DNR’s Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) requirements.

In order to see what effect the proposed reconveyance would have on the current level of DNR forest prac-
tices, we need only take a simple ratio of the proposed reconveyance acres to the total currently available
for forest practices, and weight that relative to the proportion of the area that is in protected status under the
1
 Taken from the DNR Forest Practices Application Review System (FPARS), 2004 - 2008.
Landscape Plan due to the presence of steep slopes, riparian areas, wind buffers, etc. When such an analysis
is done2 it is found that the current proposal is likely to result in a decrease of 44 acres of forest practices per
year if no forest practices are conducted on the land after reconveyance. Of those 44 acres, 39 are within the
Lake Whatcom watershed.

What have been the trends of forest practice activity over the past few decades and how do they relate to cur-
rent water quality issues? To get an idea of how the
current level of forest practice activity compares
with that of past decades, I have looked for a previ-
ous analysis of this activity. In May 1990, the fol-
lowing figure was presented to the Lake Whatcom
Forestry Forum. According to the figure, these data
come from Whatcom County Planning.

It is apparent from this figure that the average
number of acres of forest practices in the water-
shed was around 1,000 over the period 1987 -
1990. The current level - including those DNR for-
est practices referenced above - is approximately
400 acres per year. This decrease in forest practice Note: there are 2 dig-
activity has resulted in no concomitant increase in its past the decimal
water quality - in fact, water quality has decreased point on this axis.
substantially in the last two decades. This calls any
strong linkage between forest practices and current Lake Whatcom water quality issues into question.

If no forest practices occur on the reconveyed land, the result of this proposal would be elimination of a por-
tion of the DNR forest practices, conducted to the highest standards in the watershed, and accounting for ap-
proximately 10% of total watershed forest practices. Is it likely that reducing the current harvest level in the
watershed in this way will result in any apparent water quality benefit?

As a final note: it is disingenuous to link the landslides that happened on private forest land in Lewis County
with what may happen on DNR forest land in the Lake Whatcom watershed. Private forest practices are regu-
lated by the same agency as State harvests, but they follow much different rules. To visibly see an example,
take a look at the North side of Stewart Mountain where a sharp line of demarcation can be seen between the
“scraped earth” forest practices of first Crown and now Sierra Pacific and those of the DNR in their recent
North Olson cut. The best thing we can do to prevent more Lewis County like events is to make sure current
Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland is removed from office in November.

Financial consequences:
Loss of revenue: Any analysis of revenue loss depends on at least the following 4 factors:
         • Acreage of forest practices approved.
         • Price of timber when those forest practices are executed.
         • Junior taxing districts serviced by the area of the forest practice (location dependent).
         • Property tax levy rate of those junior taxing districts at the time the timber is cut.
2
 A simple calculation is done as follows: average DNR harvest per year in Landscape Planning Area = 293/3 = 97.6. Average
harvest in reconveyed area assuming equal likelihood of harvest = 97.6*8400/15700 = 52 acres. Taking into account that more pro-
tected area under the Landscape Plan lies on Forest Board Land (60% opposed to 53% of Landscape Area as a whole (DEIS 2003;
estimate based on Fig 5 on pg 122 and the consideration of Forest Board and Common School Trusts, which account for 84% of
the land area)), and assuming intergrant transfer does not change this = 52*0.4/0.47 = 44 acres. The portion of this that is within the
watershed = 44*7400/8400 = 39 acres.
Due to the uncertainty of the factors involved, it is not easy to say what the loss of revenue will be. However,
we can look at a recent DNR timber sale in the watershed to get an idea of some real numbers. The “Look
North” timber sale has occurred in the furthest North part of the DNR holdings on Lookout Mountain. Access
to this timber sale is via a road across from Sudden Valley gate 13. In this timber sale, 47.3 acres of Whatcom
County Forest Board timber were sold3 for $829,598 (February 2008). This timber has been partially, but not
entirely cut as of this writing. If we assume that the DNR Forest Development Account receives 25% of the
proceeds, this leaves approximately $622,0004 to be distributed by the Whatcom County Treasurer to the ju-
nior taxing districts serving the location of this sale. This distribution follows that for property taxes, with the
exception of fact that there is no deduction for fire protection. Based on the location of the sale5 the following
distribution is obtained: Bellingham School District: $222,000, County General Fund: $74,000, County Road
Fund: $97,000, Port: $22,000, Library: $24,000, State General Fund and other recipients: $183,000. Thus,
the sale of an amount of timber similar to, but somewhat larger than that we would expect to be harvested on
the reconveyed land under current management, results in substantial funding for a number of taxing districts
- over $170,000 directly to Whatcom County. Even if some of these districts forgo payment in the event the
land is reconveyed, the impact to their budgets is a real cost that must be accounted for.

Park development and M & O costs: Development is estimated to be in the $millions. While grants may pro-
vide part of the funding, matching will be required in order for the grant applications to be competitive. Grant
funding is unlikely to provide for all development costs - especially in the current era of very tight state and
federal budgets. For M&O costs, we only have estimates provided by Whatcom County Parks of on the order
of $150,000 per year.

Use of the Conservation Futures Fund: According to RCW 84.34.240, “Amounts placed in this fund may be
used for the purpose of acquiring rights and interests in real property pursuant to the terms of RCW 84.34.210
and 84.34.220, and for the maintenance and operation of any property acquired with these funds.” While
RCW 84.34.210 envisions using the funds for fee simple acquistion, and RCW 84.34.220 concerns using the
funds to acquire development rights, RCW 84.34.240 restricts the amount of these funds that can be used for
maintenance and operations to ”fifteen percent of the total amount collected from the tax levied under RCW
84.34.230 in the preceding calendar year.”

Reconveyance is not a fee simple acquisition - clearly, the Conservation Futures fund cannot be used for M &
O of the reconveyed land. Can the Conservation Futures fund be used for any purpose with regard to recon-
veyance - including transaction costs, which are currently budgeted (2007 - 2008) from the Parks general
fund budget?

The Conservation Futures fund is the only fund Whatcom County currently uses for land acquisition, and it
must be available to fund acquisition of watershed, agricultural and other lands in the county.

Lack of an independent financial analysis: If we had an independent financial analysis, such as was done in
regard to the merging of the City of Bellingham and the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District, then many
of these questions would be settled. However, Whatcom County has made no attempt to have such an analy-
sis conducted.

3
 Note that there is some incorrect information in your council packet regarding this, and the other timber sale that is in the area
proposed for reconveyance (White Chantrelle). Both of these have been approved, and sold to Sierra Pacific.
4
 This is close to the figure - $658,000 - given to Mike McFarlane by the DNR on March 20, 2008 as an estimate of the average
yearly revenue obtained by county taxing districts from Forest Board Land in the Landscape Planning Area (3/17/2008 memo). It
differs greatly from the figure of $185,000 given in your council packet.
5
 The land covered by this sale is in tax code 1006, which determines this distribution.
It is very significant that a number of county departments have recently been asked for substantial budget cuts
in the 2009 - 2010 budget cycle. For example, Parks has been asked for a $575,000 budget reduction. Plan-
ning and Development - responsible for enforcing watershed development regulations - has been asked for
a whopping $1.5 million cut. The county will lose revenue as a result of this proposal, and it will incur addi-
tional costs - how will these revenue losses and costs be borne?

Land use impacts: The designation of the reconveyed land as park, and the increased recreational use of the
watershed that will result, will have both direct and indirect impacts. Among these:

Park development impacts: Without a conservation easement, there is nothing to stop a future incarnation of
county government from building watershed damaging parks facilities. These might include, but would not
be limited to: asphalt parking lots, large scale boat moorages and launching facilities, community centers,
and shooting ranges. Similarly, operational decisions - such as the allowance for camping, fires and off-road
vehicles - need to be protected against.

Transportation and access: The proposed park area will be serviced primarily by Lakeway Drive, and Lake
Louise Road on the Lookout Mountain side, and by North Shore Road on the Stewart Mountain side. Lake-
way and Lake Louise are already severely impacted corridors. There is bus service along Lake Louise road
that will allow folks to use non-automotive access. Additionally, there is the potential for access from Samish
Way. The Stewart Mountain side is an entirely different story. Here, park users will access the park by driving
all the way to the end of North Shore Road; there are no reasonable possibilities for other access. There is no
bus service - all trips will be by car (or possibly boat), and this area will be impacted.

Enforcement: As a frequent visitor to both of the areas proposed for reconveyance, I can say there are already
enforcement issues with regard to off-road vehicles, illegal trail building, and fires. Responsibility for polic-
ing these areas will rest with county government after reconveyance, and this is another cost to be accounted
for.

Liability issues: Not only will Whatcom County assume liability for current uses of the reconveyed land after
this proposal is executed, but they will assume liability for past uses. When there were previous slides in the
watershed in 1983, residents sued the then owners of the land and were paid substantial sums - not because
those owners were responsible, but because they owned land where previous forest practices issues were
unresolved. This liability concern is one of the reasons reconveyance was not requested on this land after the
land trade in 1993 that brought a large part of the current DNR holdings into the watershed.

Effect on adjacent land uses: If this land becomes a park, it will, at some point, be rezoned appropriately.
Land that is no longer forest resource land used for commercial forestry will eventually lose that designation.
If this were to occur today, this land would be rezoned - after reconveyance - Recreation and Open Space
(ROS), as are all large Whatcom County Parks with the exception of the Canyon Lake Community Forest
(which has been inaccessible for the past 2 years). What will this designation do to motivate adjoining land
owners to request de-designation of their forest land? Could this reconveyance request be reconfigured to
make such requests less-likely? By reconfiguring the request, could we reduce the possibility of development
of adjoining rural lands?

Miscellaneous issues:
Appropriateness of the proposed land exchange as a park: While not everyone would agree with me, I per-
sonally think the Lookout Mountain park area makes sense. Transportation to the site is already impacted
by Sudden Valley, it has bus service, it has logical connections to other park areas (e.g. Stimpson, Olsen,
and Squires Lake). The park area would have many users who reside in Sudden Valley and would not travel
through the watershed. There would be adjacent land use issues with regard to Trillium’s Galbraith Mountain
area - this land should be targeted for acquisition with Conservation Futures funds.
The Stewart Mountain area makes no sense as a park. The only reasonable access is via North Shore Road,
and there is no bus service - park visitors will drive over 10 miles through the watershed on their way to the
park, as they now do for the North Lake Whatcom Trail. Additionally, there is a large utility corridor down
the middle (the BPA right-of-way). If the reconveyance were reconfigured toward the Olson Creek area,
some of these issues would be reduced, and the utility corridor would be avoided. Additionally, the Olson
Creek area already has a substantial trail system, and more of that land is available for timber harvest, so the
impact on forest practices would be greater if this area were reconveyed after appropriate intergrant trans-
fers.

Timeliness: There is no reason reconveyance has to be executed now. The current configuration of DNR
land in the watershed has been in place since 1993 - reconveyance could have occurred at any time in the
past 15 years, and will continue to be available into the future. The land configuration of the current pro-
posal comes from the DNR and reflects their desires with regard to intergrant transfers6 rather than those of
this community. The current DNR administration is the most environmentally unfriendly we have had in
decades. This November, there is a good chance we can replace Doug Sutherland with Peter Goldmark. With
such a change at the top, it is likely that we would see reduced timber harvest in the watershed under the
current landscape plan, or, if the pursuit of reconveyance is still desired, it could be reconfigured to better
serve the needs of this community.


Suggestions to help alleviate concerns:
        • Conservation easement to prevent future governmental entities from making bad land use and
           operational decisions - for example, not only should damaging parks facilities be prohibited, but
           potentially damaging parks activities, such as off-roading, camping and building fires, should
           also not be allowed. The concept of a conservation easement that meets some of these require-
           ments has been recommended by the “committee”.

          •   Financial analysis of the proposal by an independent, outside entity (such as FCS Group).

          •   Dedicated revenue stream (e.g. small property tax levy) to pay all costs of proposal (as deter-
              mined above) - including losses to junior taxing districts. Only with a dedicated revenue stream
              can we be sure these costs are not borne by reductions in other programs.

          •   Scale proposal back to the Lookout Mountain area only. The Stewart Mountain area makes little
              sense as a park, and in the future, with a more environmentally friendly DNR administration,
              this may be reconfigured to make more sense. Scaling the proposal back will also reduce costs,
              greatly reduce transportation impacts, and will remove the objections from the Mt Baker School
              District. There is no rational reason the current DNR administration would object to the scaled
              down intergrant transfer required in this situation.




6
 The Board of Natural Resources was briefed on this exchange initially at their November 2007 meeting. A reading of that discus-
sion is instructive. Among the revealing statements: a question from Jon Kaino, wondering “....if we would get the non 01 trust
lands out on the perimeter where we can actually harvest them?” (this was answered affirmative by DNR Land Steward Bruce
Mackey - note that “non 01” refers to other than Forest Board lands).

								
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