How YOU saved Blanchard Mountain

How YOU saved Blanchard Mountain

ConservationNWAdmin / Feb 01, 2018 / Blanchard Mountain, Protecting Wildlands

By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director

“Dad, is it true that Blanchard Mountain might be logged?”

It hurt to hear those words from my daughter almost two years ago, reflecting the buzz among her high school friends and so many in Northwest Washington who love and often visit the western Skagit County jewel that is Blanchard Mountain.

Heart of the Blanchard State Forest in the Chuckanut Range—where the Cascades meet the Salish Sea— Blanchard Mountain is home to Oyster Dome, Lily Lake and other beloved outdoor destinations. As many as 100,000 people from across the Puget Sound region visit each year to hike, mountain bike, ride horses, hang glide and watch wildlife.

But for more than a decade, the core of this forest was on the chopping block.

Hikers enjoy the trail to Oyster Dome on Blanchard State Forest. Photo: Anna Hogenson.

You see, Blanchard is managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as State Trust Lands, with revenue from forestry supporting schools and other services. Since the mid-2000s, we’ve been a leader in efforts to conserve this special place while still meeting trust funding obligations.

Thanks to your support, our partner organizations, and the more than 3,000 people who contacted state legislators through our WILD NW Action Alerts, Blanchard Mountain was saved when Governor Inslee signed the Capital Budget Bill on January 21. While a couple modest procedural steps remain, we can breathe easy and begin plans for a summer celebration on the mountain. Look for more info on that in the months ahead!

The legislature also used the process to appropriately rename the area to the Harriet Spanel State Forest. Harriet was a state senator who long served the 40th Legislative District, which includes Blanchard. She led early phases of the effort to protect Blanchard and also secured initial funding in 2007. She also was instrumental in gaining protection for the giant Lake Whatcom County Park and other areas.

Protection decades in the making

The story starts a century ago, when Blanchard was privately owned and logged. When the owner was delinquent in paying taxes, the clear-cut land reverted to Skagit County. Taxes on forest land were higher then, so this was common enough that counties ended up with tens of thousands of acres that they had no capacity to reforest and manage. The legislature gave these lands to the state to manage in trust for the counties and junior taxing districts. By the 1990’s, the trees were big enough that the DNR proposed timber sales. But by then Blanchard had become a haven for hiking, horse riding, mountain biking, and others who loved the mountain—not to mention habitat for birds and wildlife A showdown ensued.

Mitch lobbying for Blanchard Mountain with Molly Doran of Skagit Land Trust, Harold Mead of Friends of Blanchard, Bob Rose a Skagit County citizen and community leader, and Kendra Smith representing Skagit County.

In early 2006, I was invited by the Commissioner of Public Lands to be one of ten people representing diverse stakeholder interests, from the county and timber industry to conservation and recreation, to try to find a path forward. We had I think over a dozen all-day meetings before we reached a tenuous agreement late that year. The essence of the Blanchard Forest Strategy agreement was that the 1,600 acre core (of the total 4,500 acre state forest) would gain protection if the value of the timber (over $12.8 million) could be raised within five years. Critically and uniquely, those funds were not to be given to the trusts, but were instead to be used by the DNR to purchase timber land for perpetual forestry, preferably saving those acres from conversion to residential development. The point was to not just to protect Blanchard and fulfil current trust obligations, but to also maintain working forestland in the face of urban encroachment.

The agreement had critics on both sides. Some groups felt that more (or all) of Blanchard State Forest should be protected, and they sued. Conservation Northwest intervened in that lawsuit on the side of the state to defend the agreement as responsible and innovative stewardship in the face of a difficult situation. Ultimately, the Agreement withstood the challenge. Meanwhile, we went to the legislature for the funds and won $7.7 million in 2007. That was a great start, but it would have gotten more, even perhaps all the needed funds, were it not for the uncertainty caused by the lawsuit.

The next year the economy collapsed, blowing up the state’s budget with it. But the time the economy recovered around 2011, the state was under a judicial mandate to vastly reprioritize funding towards education. The net effect was that annual lobbying efforts to fund the Blanchard agreement were challenging at best. But the stakeholders held together, extended our agreement due to the circumstances, and trudged on year after year to keep the drumbeat for Blanchard booming. Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland gave way to Peter Goldmark for two terms, and now Hilary Franz (a former Conservation Northwest boardmember), with all honoring and supporting the agreement.

Sunset over Blanchard Mountain and the Salish Sea. Photo: Paul Anderson

Things began to heat up again in 2015. There were legislative field trips on the mountain, postcard and email action alerts, tabling at events, fliers handed out to hikers, short videos produced, and every other form of citizen engagement to keep the issue before legislators. Thousands of people from a variety of constituent groups spoke up for Blanchard. As the extension deadline neared, DNR began planning a timber sale in the erstwhile protected area in case we fell short. The photos of their survey markers near the trail to Oyster Dome were further fuel for those of us working to save this special place.

In 2017 we came close enough, with Blanchard being funded in the Capital Budget bill that the legislature failed to pass due to disagreement over unrelated issues. With Blanchard funding allocated but the budget stalled Commissioner Franz opted to delay logging to give us one more chance in Olympia. Thank goodness she did.

The state legislature finally passed a Capital Budget on January 18, 2018, including full funding to save the core of Blanchard State Forest from logging. The iconic trails, forests and habitat around Oyster Dome, Lilly Lake and Samish Overlook will now be preserved for future generations!

A shared success

This collaborative agreement withstood so much unforeseeable challenge. Through it all the stakeholders held to their commitments and our elected champions remained supportive. I really don’t believe we could have succeeded in the end had the Agreement been different in any way, including protective of more land. We found the sweet spot that allowed outdoor recreationists, conservation groups, school trusts, elected leaders and the DNR to walk away happy.

A hang glider soars over the forests slopes of Blanchard Mountain, where the Chuckanut Range meets the Salish Sea. Photo: Paul Anderson

The final funding was appropriated through the Trust Land Transfer program, and Blanchard was actually the only such project funded this year despite a number of other very competitive projects. Since the TLT program doesn’t fit for the class of trust land that Blanchard represents, the DNR will first have to undertake a land exchange. Plans are in place to do so through the Supplemental Capital Budget and the Department of Natural Resources. Technically the protection won’t be complete until maybe a year from now, but we don’t expect further hurdles to emerge

Given all the love, time and effort poured into saving Blanchard, we deserve a party! And there’s no sense waiting until the ink is dry in 2019. So expect to hear about a celebration on the mountain early this coming summer. Regardless of how good the food, music and speeches are, the scenery is sure to be incredible.

THANK YOU to all the legislators, organizations, recreationists and community members who helped make this success possible!

 

 

P.S. Want to support innovative local conservation projects like the successful effort to save Blanchard Mountain? Please consider joining Conservation Northwest today! Annual memberships start at only $35.

With creativity, strategy and dialogue, we find common ground and collaborative solutions for challenging issues including wilderness conservation, endangered species recovery, and sustainable natural resource use across the Pacific Northwest.

Walkers enjoy a trail on Blanchard Mountain near views of the San Juan Islands. Photo: Molly Doran