Tree-huggin’ lumberjacks

Environmentalists are embracing a new strategy for saving the forests: cut 'em themselves.

Tree-huggin' lumberjacks

THERE WAS A TIME when logging was an environmental scourge, the symbol of everything hateful to green activists. But now, a number of environmental groups and green-minded politicians are coming round to a new attitude. They’re looking at ways to keep the timber industry operating in King County—and even making plans to get into the timber “harvesting” trade themselves.

“We see this as a possible niche business,” says Charlie Raines, a longtime forest activist for the Sierra Club. His newest project aims to buy up land in the Cascade foothills and then pay for it by selling off some of the timber. “We want to form forestry companies that would go more lightly on the land,” says Maryanne Tagney Jones, a veteran environmental campaigner who is working with Raines.

Ex-Microsoft attorney Bill Pope, another prominent Northwest environmental leader, is working on a similar venture that would borrow money from Wall Street for huge land purchases and then use tree revenues to pay off the debt. “We’re going to have to be a timber company, in the low-level sense of that term,” Pope says.

These new efforts reflect “a kind of sea-change among Seattle greens,” says Tagney Jones, who lives in Preston. “They’re seeing that commercial logging is not the wicked awful thing we thought it was.”

“Even environmentalists have come to believe that it’s better to have active forestry than shopping malls everywhere,” says Nancy Keith, executive director of the Mountains to Sound Greenway, which has championed this idea for a decade.

Indeed, as Fred Meyers and four-car Microsoft mansions continue their steady eastward advance from Bellevue into the Cascades, logging is starting to look better and better. From the standpoint of water quality, salmon, or clean air, even a clear-cut may be preferable to pavement. And these new lumberjacks intend to use far gentler methods.

IN KEEPING WITH this outlook, King County Executive Ron Sims has launched a new effort to keep today’s timber companies in the timber-cutting business and deter them from selling off their land for subdivisions. He recently traveled to Olympia to speak at a “Private Forest Summit,” where he pledged to create policies and “economic incentives” that would help make the private forestry business viable.

Sims recently invited executives from the county’s two biggest private forest owners—Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek—for private meetings with him and his staff to hear the industry’s concerns. “They made it clear they were looking for some new and innovative ways to maintain commercial forestry,” says Mike Yeager, Plum Creek’s director of land management. “They said they recognized that we were a business. And we appreciated that.”

In his Olympia speech, Sims described the forestland that covers two-thirds of King County as “the lungs of our region” and said that maintaining forests is “the single most effective solution to most of the environmental issues we are facing”—including the problem of endangered salmon.

“Most people think of forestry as a salmon culprit,” says Kathy Creahan, of the county’s natural resources division. “Our view is that forestry is about the best land use you can have for preserving fish.”

“Working forest” also provides open space and recreation. Mike Munson of the Washington Forest Protection Association, a timber industry trade group, notes, “Only 2 percent of working forest is being harvested at any one time. That means 98 percent is green and growing.”

And at least along the I-90 corridor, “the timber companies have started using practices that have less impact,” says Nancy Keith.

THE NEW ENTHUSIASM for the timber biz does not extend across all terrain. Just last week, leaders of an ambitious new venture called the Cascades Conservation Partnership kicked off a three-year, $125 million campaign to rescue 75,000 acres of privately held central Cascades forestland from timber company ownership and preserve them as wilderness. These lands, which include roadless areas and tens of thousands of acres of old growth, are all under threat of being logged by Plum Creek, and the Partnership is counting on federal grants and private donors to save these trees from the ax.

But the forests of the Cascade foothills (which, along I-90, begin near Issaquah) are far from virgin. “The majority of the land is on its second or third cutting,” says the Sierra Club’s Charlie Raines. The greatest threat facing these low-elevation habitats is not another tree harvest, but being plowed under for a Cucina!Cucina!.

The one million acres of foothills forests, which stretch across three counties, are “still very consolidated and very valuable from a wildlife perspective,” says Kathy Creahan of Sims’ staff. But as the Eastside explodes with new growth and fast money, “they are in serious jeopardy of being lost,” argues King County Council Member Larry Phillips. “I don’t think the public knows this.”

As Raines observes, “there’s not enough money—or enough willing sellers—to just buy it all and preserve it.” So Raines, together with the Land Conservancy of Seattle and King County, is starting up an initiative to keep the foothills forested by taking advantage of their money-making potential. “We want to use timber revenues to help defray the cost of preservation,” says Gene Duvernoy of the Conservancy.

The plan, which is still in its formative stage, is to recruit teams of investors who would put up the money for key properties, then get paid off over time with cash from the tree sales. The ventures would be run like a business, except without the fat profit margins—and aggressive chain saws—that industry giants like Weyerhaeuser are expected to deliver. “We think there are investors who would be willing to settle for less than Weyerhaeuser’s 17 percent return,” says Maryanne Tagney Jones.

The harvesting would be done according to the strictest environmental standards, with wider buffers around streams, conservative road building, and other sustainable methods. Raines is even hoping that these enlightened forest practices could be “certified” by watchdogs, allowing the timber to be sold at a premium.

The tree-trimming strategy “may not be the optimum choice for some people,” says Raines. “But we’re looking at a fairly pragmatic approach. The next generation may prefer certain areas to be parks. If we do our job right now, we give them that option. You can’t turn Bellevue back into a park.”

ANOTHER HIGH-POWERED environmental team, including Bill Pope and Larry Phillips, is getting started on a similar project, known as the Evergreen Forest Trust. They’re planning to take advantage of a new, as-yet-unapproved financing tool, known as “community forestry bonds.” These bonds would allow tree-huggers to work on a much bigger scale, freeing them from reliance on donor checks and political favors, and instead allowing them to tap directly into Wall Street via the trillion-dollar public market for tax-exempt debt.

“We think of that as a huge potential for capital,” says Pope, who is also on the board of the Cascade Conservation Partnership and says this project could be even bigger. “This is part of the environmental movement growing up.” The bonds would be paid off with timber revenues, but would carry a low interest rate, allowing landowners to practice “lower-impact forestry,” Pope says.

However, the bonds require a special dispensation from Congress, because usually a nonprofit isn’t allowed to turn around and sell assets it bought with tax-exempt financing. Republican Jennifer Dunn of Bellevue has sponsored legislation in the House, which appears to have wide support, but the bill has so far been ensnared in Congress’s two-year battle over a tax cut.

King County Council Member Larry Phillips says the venture is forging ahead anyway. “In the last three months this has gotten real,” says Phillips. “We’re beginning to let major landowners know we’re an interested party.”

Whether the timber giants will want to join hands with these new environmental entrepreneurs is another question.

Activists, and county officials, are hoping that before the timber companies sell off another big chunk of land to make way for The Suburban Estates at Formerly Wooded Valley, they’ll give the greens a chance to bid, or come up with some other preservation mechanism such as trading development rights between properties.

“We’re saying to the companies: ‘If your long-term plan is to sell it off, talk to us first,'” says Charlie Raines. “We’re asking for time. We want to be brought in at a certain level of decision-making,” says Maryanne Tagney Jones.

But Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal sounds fairly lukewarm to this idea, noting that the real estate world tends to move a little faster than the public sector. “We always try to keep people apprised of our plans,” says Mendizabal. “But we have to make business decisions and it depends on the business situation how much notice you can give people. Sometimes time is a factor.”

Mendizabal says, “It’s pretty apparent that Ron [Sims] has an interest in preserving green space. That’s great. We’re all for it.” But he notes there are other factors at play. “This area’s boomin’. When you look out in the future you see a population that continues to grow and the need for housing.”

And Mendizabal expresses considerable skepticism that the new romance with “working forest” can endure, especially among the people who live near the woods. “Everyone thinks ‘working forest’ is wonderful,” he says, “until the chain saws start up and the trucks start driving by.”

Says Tagney Jones: “We need to educate people so they don’t get hysterical about a cut.”

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