Okanogan Ok?

The 'win-win' plan to save the Loomis sparks backlash.

THE ONLY CRITTER WE SEE as we ski, snowshoe, and (I confess) roar on snowmobiles through the fir, spruce, and lodgepole-pine thickets is not the fabled lynx of the Okanogan high country. It’s certainly not the rare fisher that sometimes passes this way, or the grizzly bear that may do so, or the natty pine martens that frequent a nearby automatic-camera trap, baited with stinking fish and skunk scent, for surveying local wildlife. It’s not even the weasels, squirrels, and snowshoe hares whose tracks cut everywhere through the snow, or the coyote that charges through one deep drift, doubtless wishing he were in warmer country. It’s a trembling vole—a stripped-down mouse—that scrambles for the snowbank as we thunder by. Mark Skatrud, a carpenter/conservationist who lately spends most of his time agitating and showing greenhorns like me around these woods, stops and lifts the tiny rodent out of harm’s way.

Suddenly Skatrud signals us to stop for the subtle sight that is the grail of modern eco-sightseers here on Washington’s north-central edge in the Loomis State Forest: round, 3-inch-wide tracks in the snow. These show none of the sloppy tail dragging or crust breaking of the others. The creature that made them walked like an alpine Jesus on the snow, buoyed above the drifts on furry snowshoes. It was a northern lynx, one of the rarest and most elusive predators in these 48 states. The tracks are nearly buried in new snow, so faint they only show clearly from a sidelong view. But Skatrud dutifully records them in his log, as he and other volunteers record every sign of lynx. Small signs they may be, but this elusive cat is having wide, rippling effects here and very far from the Loomis Forest—in the worlds of conservation, timber, state lands management, and even high-tech philanthropy.

Last week, a long-brewing scheme to save California’s ancient Headwaters redwoods from getting sawn into picnic tables finally came to fruition, as the Clinton administration agreed to buy them from the junk-bond buccaneer Charles Hurwitz for $540 million—and environmentalists everywhere howled at Hurwitz’s scam. At the same time, however, they’ve cheered a deal to buy out logging and road-building rights in 24,605 acres of the Loomis, comprising the two largest parcels of nearly roadless land still owned by the state of Washington—including the snowbank where this lynx passed sometime before us. Compared to redwoods, the lodgepole pine here is twiggy stuff—often just 8 or 10 inches thick after 100 years, fit for little more than chipping and 2-by-4s. But the conservation values are impressive; the Loomis parcels afford key wildlife-corridor links to the adjacent federal Pasayten Wilderness. Together, their worn peaks, midrise forests, and wet valleys probably support more lynx than any other part of the Lower 48—not to mention creatures ranging from thundering moose to rare, tiny bog lemmings.

Beyond the relative size of its trees, the Loomis transfer differs from the federal buyout of Hurwitz in two key particulars: The cash will go into, and the timber will be taken out of, the trust used to pay for state school and university construction, rather than private coffers. And this transfer is being undertaken (so far, anyway) entirely through private donations. Raising those donations—$13.1 million by a July 1 deadline, with just $3.3 million in the can already—seems on its face an uphill campaign. But compared to the redwoods extortion, it also seems a bargain: just a little more than $500 an acre for mediocre timberland that’s also very special habitat.

Too good a bargain, complain some folks, including many members of the local business and political leadership, in the nearby towns of Okanogan County. In school board meetings, on the floor of the Legislature, and over morning coffee at the local hangouts, they angrily dispute the appraisal that set that value and question the motives of the state Department of Natural Resources, which, under legal duress, struck the deal to safeguard all this timber from the chain saws. This tidy arrangement to save an ecosystem has become not only a rallying cry for a new eleemosynary environmentalism, but the latest flash point in the perennial war between would-be conservers and users of natural resources, and between the two Washingtons, East and West, divided by the enduring Cascade Curtain—a divergence of world views even steeper than the mountains.

THE STORY BEGAN 10 years ago. Mitch Friedman was then one of a group of civil-disobedient Earth First!ers who got arrested trying to block logging in the Okanogan National Forest, as he puts it “just a stone’s throw from the Loomis Forest.” Friedman, whose previous training was in biology, was growing disenchanted with direct protests, and increasingly interested in the little-known wild highlands of Central Washington. He left Earth First! and founded the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance to, as he puts it, “interject more science into [conservation] negotiations.”

Around the same time, Mark Skatrud became incensed when he saw logging crews “cut right up to both sides of Lucille Creek” on the state lands near his home. He checked the law, learned it had been broken, and joined a recently formed group called Friends of the Loomis Forest in hopes of stopping further depredations.

Meanwhile, alarms were starting to be raised over the plight of the lynx, a shy cat that lives at high latitudes and altitudes, where snows are too deep for its more aggressive cousin, the bobcat. That plight resulted in part from endangered species protections—for other cats. With leopard, ocelot, and other wild cat furs banned, trappers came chasing after lynx to fill the demand. “They wiped them out in Montana, took 700 to 800 a year,” says Skatrud as he points out an old lynx-trap bower by the Loomis trail. Today, the 30 or so lynx in these mountains appear to be the healthiest population left in the Lower 48.

SKATRUD AND FRIEDMAN hooked up and in 1991 petitioned to get the lynx onto the state’s protected-species list; federal listing is in the works, and the Ecosystem Alliance has moved on to fight for grizzly protections. Friedman also undertook a uniquely ’90s initiative, melding fashionable free-enterprise, private-sector approaches to conservation with the old Earth First! flair for making headlines. In 1996, declaring the trees worth more standing than down, the Ecosystem Alliance submitted the winning bid in the Thunder Mountain timber sale in the Okanogan National Forest. The US Forest Service refused to honor that bid, declaring that it could only sell trees for cutting, not for preservation.

In 1996, Friedman proposed a similar deal for the last roadless parts of the Loomis State Forest, but the state Department of Natural Resources seemed no more interested in dealing than the USFS. It had just released, with great fanfare, a “Loomis State Forest Landscape Plan” to “integrate timber and non-timber management” and “maximize current and future benefits.” The greens hollered that even this plan would favor short-term production while shorting the long-term benefits of clean water, pristine landscapes, and wildlife habitat. The Ecosystem Alliance sued, forcing DNR to pay attention. Last fall, the state opted to settle rather than fight, and agreed to transfer the still-wild Loomis tracts from trust lands, whose harvests go to building schools and state universities, to permanent reserve, with no cutting or road building. Local cattle ranchers, whose herds graze on DNR leases, filed their opposition, and the deal was amended to allow grazing (as well as snowmobiling and other recreation) in the protected tracts. The Ecosystem Alliance would pay the “fair market value” of the tracts’ timber and land (which will nevertheless stay under state ownership), according to an appraisal whose cost it and DNR would split. Early guesses were that that would come in at around $20 million, a figure that state Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher opined (imprudently, as it turned out, considering the ammunition she gave opponents out Okanogan Way) sounded low.

Even the $13.1 million finally appraised is a tough row to raise in half a year for remote tracts in a far-off, formerly obscure state forest. But the Loomis Forest is becoming an unlikely pet cause of a new philanthropic generation in the Silicon Forest around Lake Washington. Even before the deal was struck, Friedman pitched the Paul Allen Forest Protection Foundation (in effect, Paul Allen) for help. Allen opted not to ante up for anything so “speculative,” in the words of foundation vice president Bill Pope—for now, at least. (He’s one of two main angels Friedman hopes will eventually top up the fund. The Legislature is the other.) But Pope was hooked; he’d vacationed in the Methow Valley, southwest of the Loomis, since he was a kid, and in 1994 bought a Methow institution, the Mazama Inn—with his earnings from his last job, as staff counsel at Microsoft. Pope signed onto the Loomis campaign, providing it a Seattle office and crucial entr饠to a sleeping philanthropic giant.

Jeff Stewart is another Microsoft alum (a former software tester and developer) who retired young to raise his kids and enjoy the wilderness, and then followed Pope onto the bandwagon. Stewart’s friends who still work for Bill G afford him the sort of access to company bulletin boards and meeting rooms that other fund raisers can only dream of. He’s already reached half his goal: $540,000 in donations (including Microsoft matching gifts)—”protection for over 1,000 acres,” as he proudly declares. It’s his first fund-raising effort, and as far as he knows the first environmental crusade to make such inroads out Redmond way.

Stewart, Skatrud, and Friedman all use the same term to describe the Loomis transfer: It’s a “win-win”—for the forest, the lynx, local cross-country ski bums, even the state’s schools trust fund, which they claim will make more this way than from timber sales.

Their reasons: The money comes all at once rather than over years of timber cutting. All of it goes to the schools, rather than the usual 25 percent for DNR overhead and road building. And the appraisal is actually inflated, in part because it values the timber as if it were on private rather than state land; private owners can export trees to higher-paying foreign markets, while the state is barred from doing so.

But can they make that case in Okanogan County? Okanogan is a heartland of all that sets the Other Washington apart from Redmond and Seattle: high unemployment, a tottering resource-based economy, a longtime resentment of smarty-pants outsiders (especially Seattle tree huggers) telling them what to do, and an abiding suspicion of big government that sometimes verges on the paranoiac. Nevertheless, Skatrud boasts of drawing 80 people to a Loomis Fund meeting in nearby Tonasket, and getting checks from most of them. When it comes to hearts and minds, vows Friedman, “We’re going to win in Okanogan County.”

If so, they must overcome the fierce opposition of the local establishment and, it would appear, of most other folks who still view Okanogan country in terms of its traditional mainstays: farming, grazing, mining, and logging. The county’s state senator, Bob Morton, introduced three bills in this legislative session to derail the Loomis transfer. (Two would have limited such transfers statewide; none made it out of committee.) Two weeks ago, the boards of the county’s largest school districts—in Tonasket, Okanogan, Omak, Oroville, and Curlew—joined to write Belcher opposing the transfer of Loomis lands out of the schools trust. (They also tendered their opposition to the Washington School Directors Association, which endorses the transfer so long as “no public money” is spent on it. If and when the Loomis fund hits the Legislature up for money, that endorsement will turn into a pumpkin.) The school boards wax dire, calling the transfer “a dangerous precedent reaching across the Northwest”—a raid on the schools trust abetted by an exceedingly low appraisal.

That view isn’t universal. One Omak School Board member, Linda Gregory, supported the transfer—and resigned in protest, because, she claims, the vote to oppose it was railroaded through without waiting to hear from its supporters. “This was the final straw,” she says. “I have trouble dealing with a board of education that is so close-minded.”

But Gregory was already an exception: She moved to Omak from California six years ago (for the hiking and fishing, she says) and now chairs the county Democratic Party. “In the Bay Area I considered myself a moderate,” she recounts. “Here, I’m a flaming liberal. I think people here are simply afraid of change. They want things to be the way they were 20 years ago. . . . There’s a fringe of paranoia here, people who worry that the UN is taking over Okanogan County. In a county of 37,000 people, that fringe gets noticed.”

IN A TOWN LIKE TONASKET, you wouldn’t call the gang that gathers each morning around the bank of tables in Whistler’s Restaurant “the fringe.” They’re the old boys at the center of every community like this: cattlemen, timbermen, farmers, and miners, many of them retired, all deeply anchored here: “The paper in Oroville gets a lot of ideas from our breakfasts,” says one. And they’re at pains to show they’re not reactionaries; another notes that he’s “the biggest organic pear grower in the world” and thinks eco-tourism would be a fine thing for these parts.

But the old boys plainly bristle at outsiders telling them about their mountains. “I was raised up there,” says Sam Cupp, a retired cattleman, “and I never saw a lynx.” Me neither, says Burt Jellison, who used to “cruise” (scout) timber up in the Loomis. But, he argues, “It’s critical that some of that timber get logged for the lynx to survive. Lynx need rabbits, and rabbits need young lodgepole pine” that grows in after a cut. (Skatrud argues that natural succession will provide all the clearings that hare and lynx need.)

Around here, Lands Commissioner Belcher is commonly called just “Jennifer,” and not affectionately. The old boys (like timber folks around the state) tend to see her as an environmental fifth columnist, sacrificing the school trust she’s supposed to nurture for dubious conservation goals. “You always appraise to what the client wants,” says Jellison (who has experience in such matters). But by buying the appraisal together, shouldn’t DNR and the Environmental Alliance have struck a fair medium? “I think they both wanted a low appraisal,” says Jellison darkly.

Such suspicions seem to stem in part from something the greens have long complained of: the difficulty of extracting information from DNR. Around Okanogan, opinions of the notorious appraisal are based on rumor, thirdhand accounts, and limited excerpts, because DNR won’t release it to the public. Assistant Attorney General Paul Silver, who represents the agency, says by law it can’t, because the appraisal contains proprietary information on how DNR values and sells the public’s timber.

“I said, ‘Join the club,'” recounts Friedman. “It’s what we’ve gone through for 10 years trying to get information on timber sales.”

Perhaps the greens (and their new tech-world allies) and the ol’ boys (and girls) in Okanogan County could find other common ground, given the chance. But press Friedman or Jellison and you’ll get the same answer: The differences run deeper than timber valuation and lynx biology, to basic questions of what the land means, not just what it’s worth. Mark Skatrud, Mr. Loomis, who (when he has time for carpentry) works with wood from forests like these, is the sort who might bridge the gap. But even he finds it an uphill battle explaining. “People say to me, ‘We give you this [land for conservation] and you’ll want the rest of the Loomis,'” he recounts. “I whip out my map and show them all the roads that cut up the rest of the Loomis and say, ‘That’s why I don’t want it.'”

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