Though it might not win a Pulitzer Prize, The Seattle Times' recent series on public-private land swaps represents investigative and explanatory journalism at its finest. "Trading the West Away: How the Public Is Losing Trees, Land, and Money," which topped the Times' front page from September 27 through October 2, was superbly reported and written by Eric Nalder, Deb Nelson, Jim Simon, and Danny Westneat, and strikingly photographed by Benjamin Benschneider. All are due many thanks.
I've come down pretty hard on the Times in recent months for its reflexively pro-establishment positions—from supporting the taxpayer-subsidized NordstromPacific Place retail complex to opposing the monorail. I'm not standing corrected (as you'll see further below), but I do stand in appreciation of this terrific series, a seven-month undertaking that demanded much traveling, document scouring, and Internet sleuthing.
For those too wrapped up in Clinton-related absurdities to read through the 15 pages of text, maps, charts, and photos, the upshot of the Times' investigation is this: US taxpayers have lost millions of dollars from the swapping of forest-thick public land for chain-saw-ravaged private property—not to mention the trees themselves. Specifically:
*More than $30 million was lost in 1996 when the US Forest Service gave Weyerhaeuser 4,500 fir-covered, wildlife-rich acres on Huckleberry Mountain (east of Enumclaw) for 30,000 acres of "5 o'clock shadow of young trees planted after clear-cutting." The deal went through after winning an endorsement from the Sierra Club's Charlie Raines, whose opposition melted after Weyerhaeuser donated some land in a popular backpacking area.
*In what would be the largest Northwest swap in a half-century, Forest Service officials are thinking about giving 17,000 acres stretching from the Alpine Lakes Wilderness to Mount St. Helens to Plum Creek Timber for 62,000 acres flanking I-90 on the Cascades' eastern slope. Plum Creek says it'll start cutting old growth along I-90 unless Congress approves the deal. Sen. Slade Gorton has sponsored the appropriate legislation.
*The Forest Service concluded an Oregon land swap last year with Crown Pacific Lumber even after discovering that 1,500 acres of old growth the government was supposed to receive was really just a few hundred acres. The problem, the Times reported, was that "no one from the agency had actually seen those 1,500 acres."
*Looking for a spot to build a ski resort, oil baron R. Earl Holding two years ago secured 1,320 acres of Forest Service land near Ogden, Utah, after Sen. Orrin Hatch threatened to "kill" anyone who didn't give Holding what he wanted. Hatch's fellow lawmakers went on to pass the Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Management Act of 1996, which, among other deals, approved a swap of 350 square miles in Arkansas and Oklahoma with Weyerhaeuser without an appraisal of the property.
*A Colorado speculator "greenmailed" his way into 105 acres near Telluride after he started building a huge cabin—with the help of silence-piercing helicopters—within the pristine West Elk Wilderness. Others have demanded and received public land after threatening to hack down ancient California redwoods, dig a gold mine near Yellowstone Park, and build a shopping mall next to the Manassas Civil War Battlefield in Virginia.
"Once we started," said the paper's Deb Nelson, "the leads came fast and furious." Nelson, like Nalder a past Pulitzer recipient, said many of those leads came from environmental advocates—the sort of people who rarely make their way into a reporter's Rolodex, much less the newspaper. "When the environmental groups sounded the alarm," Nelson said, "the alarms they were sounding had some basis."
Nelson says readers can expect the Times to stay on the story. For the sake of the West's forest legacy, it should.
(Reprints of "Trading the West Away" are $2; call the Times at 206-464-2111.)
Watching the Watchdogs
Last month, I suggested that Seattle Times readers file a complaint with the just-formed Washington News Council challenging the Times' membership in the Community Development Round Table, a secretive, Chamber of Commercesponsored group of business and political leaders that has met weekly at the Washington Athletic Club since the 1930s (See "The Times' 'Mission,'" SW, 9/17). Freelance photographer and community activist George Hickey phoned News Council co-founder (and former SW "Watchdogs" columnist) John Hamer to ask about the same issue. But instead of sending Hickey a complaint form, Hamer wanted to know how Hickey had gotten his phone number (the Weekly published it) and summarily rejected the complaint because the Times hadn't "personally injured" Hickey. Maybe Hamer (206-923-2955) would accept a class-action complaint?
The four-part documentary Africans in America airs on KCTS 9 from Monday through Thursday (October 19-22) at 8pm. Narrated by Angela Bassett, the series spans the beginnings of the slave trade to Reconstruction. (Each episode repeats several times; check listings.). . . . Gov. Gary Locke (remember him?) appears on KCTS to answer your questions, Wednesday, October 28, 7-8pm.
"The power of capitalism to mediate the gap between rich and poor is pretty incredible. Indeed, I think, year by year, the gap gets less."
—Bill Gates, World Economic Forum, Switzerland, 1997