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Reconveyance a great idea for Lake Whatcom watershed

By Rand Jack
The Bellingham Herald

Bellingham Herald op-ed by Rand Jack on importance of creating a forest preserve for Lake Whatcom.

Once in a great while a community has the opportunity to make a decision that profoundly affects its prosperity and quality of life for many generations to come. Whatcom Land Trust believes that the opportunity to transfer 8,400 acres from the Department of Natural Resources to Whatcom County and create a large forest reserve park in the Lake Whatcom Watershed is such an opportunity.

The opportunity to establish a large forested park in close proximity to a growing urban area is rare. We could leave no finer legacy than the prospect that someday children in our community will be able to bicycle to an old forest and walk among the majestic trees there.County Executive Pete Kremen has begun the process. The next step is up to the County Council.

Plans call for a very low impact park with development limited to 50 miles of trails with supporting facilities located and constructed to minimize impact on water quality. The park will be managed to restore the forest to old growth characteristics. To assure the compatibility of the park with its setting in the Lake Whatcom Watershed, it is essential that the park be protected with a conservation easement.

The creation of something extraordinary always has costs. In this case the costs are amazingly small compared to the benefits. The transaction cost to the County will be about $300,000, all of which will be paid from the Conservation Futures Fund, a fund that cannot be used for other kinds of purposes. The $1 million development costs for the park can be spread over ten years and paid for out of dedicated funds and grants. Annual maintenance costs will be between $100,000 and $150,000 a year.

Protecting the drinking water for half the residents of Whatcom County is a major reason to support the new park. Stricter logging rules in the watershed have made a dent in problems associated with commercial forestry in the sensitive areas, but they have not solved those problems. At best, the stricter logging rules are untested, unpopular with DNR and at the mercy of changing political tides. The Lake Whatcom basin has suffered from landslides in the past, and we know that landslides and other earth disturbances contribute to the sediment and phosphorous in the lake, a chief cause of deteriorating water quality.

Recent news about storm damage to the south should have removed any doubts about the potential impact of logging in the Lake Whatcom Watershed. Torrential December rains in Lewis County resulted in more than 730 landslides in the Upper Chehalis basin. "Nearly three quarters (73 percent) of landslides appeared to have started near logging roads or in areas clear-cut in the last 15 years of so," according to the story.

Despite DNR's mandate to control logging on unstable slopes and landowner promises to protect the basin, unstable slopes were clear-cut, "with scant oversight from state geologists who are supposed to help watchdog the timber industry," the story said.

The December Lewis County rains were highly unusual, but may well be an example of things to come. As the story reported, a recent climate change study by "federal scientists predicted that the warmer world will bring more intense Pacific rainstorms."

We must do everything we can to protect Lake Whatcom water quality, an essential, priceless community resource. Commercial forestry in the watershed is not the primary cause of deteriorating water quality. However, we cannot risk repeating the experience of Lewis County. Certainly, a maturing, intact forest would better buffer the lake than an actively managed commercial forest.

Creating an extensive, nearby forest reserve park would significantly contribute to the long-term prosperity of our community. Our population will continue to grow, and outdoor recreation and a green landscape will continue to play a key role in a quality of life closely linked to our economic fortunes. More and more, talented people and healthy businesses will come here because of the natural environment.

The opportunity to establish a large forested park in close proximity to a growing urban area is rare. We could leave no finer legacy than the prospect that someday children in our community will be able to bicycle to an old forest and walk among the majestic trees there.

When earlier this year I walked with my new grandson in 6,300-acre Mount Tamalpais State Park 12 miles from San Francisco, I thought about the foresight of the people who long ago set aside this beautiful land. That is the kind of decision that we now have the opportunity to make.

An unusual alignment of community concerns and political forces now make creation of an old growth forest park at our doorstep a possibility, one not likely to come again any time soon. We must not let this chance slip away.

Rand Jack is a board member of the Whatcom Land Trust.

Reach JULIE SHIRLEY at julie.shirley@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2261.

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