WE wrote a post on May 17 about this. In short, the “DNR reconveyance” would move 8,700 acres of public land back from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to Whatcom County, to create what’s described as (drum roll) a breathtaking new park. Or was that a massive new conservation area? Or was that a “water preserve”? Or was that a “forest preserve”? The promotional scheme that’s been fronted by Parks, the Land Trust, and Conservation Northwest has been a chameleon, changing constantly to tug at whatever heartstrings would deliver a crowd.
Pressing (critical) question #1: What’s driven this, really? The need for a park or something else? Answer:
Oct 11, 2011 - proponent Lisa McShane wrote: “It was at the 2003 tour where Jeff May, DNR logger, said to several of us: "if the people don't want logging here why don't you just reconvey the lands?"
There it is, that said it all. For all the lip service given by Whatcom County about sustainability and renewable resources, these people don’t want logging here, and they found the perfect way to do it. Partner with parks.
WE searched this disk, and found no tangible plan for the “park,” only maps showing what should get handed over, and a paper trail of claims that said there could be a regional park. WE found “recreation” mentioned on cue in numerous talking papers, letters to the state, and emails to reporters. But there were no trail maps or other plans except a few budget estimates. So we did extra due diligence and checked the Parks website, but found nothing but the same smoke and mirrors there. If you can bear the 11.4 megabyte download, look through the adopted 2008 Parks, Rec and Open Space Plan. You won’t find much except a few statements about “opportunity” and a few blips on maps referring to the already useful trails on working DNR forest land. There was nothing in the way of a mention of this park in the 20 year or 6 year capital improvement plans except for trail improvements to the working DNR property as it stands. But “park” is the required legal purpose necessary for the land exchange, so “recreation” and “passive recreation” were injected everywhere necessary - into public notices and glowing narratives - for show. "Preserve park" is the current one-size-fits-all description.
What WE found instead of a tangible plan was a lot of email about making money. Reading through these, maybe it should be called a “money park.”
WE found emails estimating how much rent could be collected from cell tower leases (not one, four). And there was a jaw-dropper about making money from wind turbines, with Convivium Renewable Energy saying there could be up to forty (!). Huh? What about the dramatic breast beating that there must be no roads or logging, to protect “our reservoir that provides drinking water for 90,000 people” ? (It's a natural lake, mind you, not a water tank.) And what about the urgent need to put a halt to activity on steep slopes that could result in (gasp) landslides? Whether Convivium has moved on or not, the emails revealed a crass double-standard to exempt lucrative special interests from the DNR’s strict Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) once DNR and logging were out of the picture. That was a total surprise.
Read clips from this email:
Oct 13, 2011 - David Wallin, WWU Huxley (who provided supporting "return to nature" reports) wrote to Park Director McFarland and Conservation Northwest’s Mitch Friedman: “It seems that the reason this hasn't been done already on DNR lands is due to DNR's HCP. DNR has taken the position that they are unwilling to even consider wind power on any of their west-side lands. As I understand it, when the HCP was negotiated back in the 90s, they included lots of provisions to allow incidental environmental impacts from a variety of non-forestry related activities (gravel mining, cell phone towers, etc.) on DNR lands. Unfortunately, no one thought to include wind power generation as an allowable non-forestry related activity. DNR is concerned that if they try to re-open the HCP to modify it to now allow wind power, they could lose the entire HCP. However, as I understand it, after reconveyance, the HCP would no longer be an obstacle to considering wind power. Not sure if putting wind power on the land would compromise the reconveyance itself. Can we have wind power in a park? Apparently, we can have cell phone towers in a park so I don't see why we couldn't have wind power.”
Then Mitch Friedman from Conservation Northwest writes back in the same thread: “Very cool. Though we need to think through what it means to meet Hinkley's insistence that the HCP continue to apply to the reconveyed land. Maybe there's a way exempting the ridge tops?”
Did you get that? The habitat conservation plan would be an obstacle? While loggers would be put out of business because roads pollute and ridges may slide, special interests can do what they want. It doesn't matter that foresters have been toeing the line and following the Landscape Plan. After the land is transferred and logging is stopped, the county could write its own exemptions from the rules. (Maybe we've got that wrong, you figure it out.)
WE saw a lot of emails penciling out how much money this “park” could make for the treasury, and silence about those being put out of work. Council seemed concerned about the loss of taxes to some “junior taxing districts,” there was a lot of chatter about that. (Remember that the council vote changed when a "gift" of $500,000 caused the Mt. Baker School District to switch its position to support?) No numbers were found in these records about the loss of jobs in the woods, or impacts to all the businesses like Hardware Sales, General Chain Saw, Yeagers and others that supply and repair forestry equipment, mill lumber, and so on. That’s just wrong.
What else is on the disk? There were some emails talking about the need to keep things quiet. WE saw things like this:
Oct 8, 2011 from Conservation Northwest’s Friedman to Lisa McShane, Rand Jack at the land Trust, Parks director McFarlane and Con. NW’s Seth Cool: “Heads up. This is confidential, so please do not share or let others know you have this. (We can’t ask DNR questions.) And yes, it sucks to have this land right before the hearing. But this slide will be in DNR’s presentation."
DNR is downplaying its significance, saying its just a guess and that future decades play out differently. Nonetheless, it could be an opening for somebody to make trouble if they want to. Basically, value shifts from Common school to State Forest Transfer. WE don’t even know what the latter category is! (Maybe the new name for Forest Board?) Any thoughts on significance or what we might say to offset any concern?”
What was going on here WE can hardly guess. But the intrigue continued:
Oct 9, 2011 - Rand Jack at the Land Trust to Mitch Friedman and Seth Cool at Conservation Northwest, Lisa McShane, and Parks director McFarlane: “I agree that we can't give up at this point, but I am not at all clear what we can do to neutralize the effect if the staff doesn't do so. I think we need to try to find a way to force the DNR staff explain this. Is there any way to go back through the channels that got this slide to us to try to bring this to a head before the meeting? I suspect that Tom Westergreen* has this crisp, bright slide in his pocket and may even have made the slide. If it does not derail the BNR, it will make getting this through the county council somewhere approaching impossible. The whole premise of the intertrust exchange is like for like equity. This slide devastates that premise in its most vulnerable spot. Well before this slide, Pete has been afraid that BNR would reject the intertrust exchange and that Tony Larson would hammer him for having wasted the money.”
Has this political kabuki been in the public interest? People have asked, "Why wasn't something this big ever run through Planning?" The more a person looks, the stranger it all seems. WE said the records read like pulp fiction; they do. WE couldn’t guess why groups like Conservation Northwest and the Land Trust would steer so many people so hard, and crush honest objection with such passion.
Then WE saw the golden egg - a draft conservation easement written (actually negotiated) just before the New Year that would give Whatcom Land Trust immense control of the whole 8,700 acres of this public land forever. That was a bigger jolt than seeing no mention about lost forest jobs and business, that there was no tangible park plan, that so much focused on money, or that people would talk about about environmental exemptions for untold land uses, but still call this land a “park.”
Read the draft conservation easement yourself. Any citizen can follow it. Basically this (1) would apply to the whole reconveyance; (2) the county would have to maintain the land to the Trust’s satisfaction or it could be sued (bearing that cost), (3) the county - meaning the public - would have to pay all the expenses of upkeep and maintenance, and (4) did we mention the agreement would last forever? Small wonder the proponents would do anything - absolutely anything - to see this reconveyance go through.
With that easement could the state - the DNR - or the people of this county ever see this public land productive again, under those terms? Did the Board of Natural Resources know about the draft conservation easement? That's entirely possible, given Public Land Commissioner Peter Goldmark's tight relationship to so many politicians and proponents. It looks like Pete Kremen knew about this, it was run through county legal; Dan Pike, Kelli Linville and Clare Fogelsong (Bellingham environmental director) were negotiating those terms. Did our council know? We the People haven't had an inkling.
This post is so long (and there’s so much more to still to see) we’ll have to issue a Part II. There are more questions to ask, that's for sure.
Below is a chart that shows just a fraction of the players who have been involved and how many have been connected in emails. Whether a person considers himself a “liberty-type” or not, you’ve got to admit there’s been a lot more to this “reconveyance” business than expected. WE thought it was a shill and bad news, and still do.
*By all means, read this plea from Tom Westergreen. Take an interest. Write a note about your concerns to council right now (click here). Then speak up and loudly at the public hearing on September 11 before the shoe drops, as it very well may. These are powerful people, and they don't like anyone messing with their plans.