Conservation dispute delays timber harvest near Wallace Falls

GOLD BAR — Trees northeast of here are marked with orange and blue in preparation for the state to sell the timber for at least $1.8 million.

The money from the 187-acre harvest is intended to benefit Snohomish County, local taxing districts and the state. But some county officials and conservation groups want to stop logging on at least some of the land.

The state has owned the mature, second-growth forest east of Wallace Falls State Park since the 1930s. It boasts mostly Douglas fir, western hemlock, bigleaf maple and western red cedar. An estimated 26,000 trees are slated to be cut down.

The proposed timber harvest, known as the “Singletary” sale, was approved in April 2014. The timber was to be auctioned to the highest bidder this past summer, but the state delayed it after hearing concerns from conservation groups and county officials.

Now, Jean Fike, manager of the Northwest region for the Department of Natural Resources, said she expects to hold off on the harvest until at least September. She said she wants to resolve issues brought up by environmentalists and the county.

Snohomish County Councilman Dave Somers and Executive John Lovick wrote a letter in April asking the state to delay the sale until 2015. They said they wanted to preserve Wallace Falls and the state park, protect trails that are being built in the Reiter Foothills Forest area, and develop a plan to balance local concerns with state interests.

The state is legally obligated to generate revenue for counties, school districts and public agencies with its trust lands. The property to be harvested near Gold Bar is part of almost 3 million acres of state trust land the Department of Natural resources manages.

After the sale near Gold Bar, the state would use about a quarter of the revenue for replanting trees and caring for the land, with a small portion put into the state’s general fund.

Snohomish County would receive the lion’s share and distribute the money among local taxing districts, including Valley General Hospital in Monroe, Snohomish County Fire District 26 in Gold Bar, Sno-Isle Libraries and the Sultan School District.

Dan Chaplik, superintendent of Sultan schools, said timber money allows the district to improve education without asking people to pay higher taxes. Since 2000, Sultan schools have received more than $3.7 million from timber sales.

Chaplik said it is unfortunate that the sale has become “mired in politics.” He toured the acreage in December with officials from the Department of Natural Resources. He said he was impressed with the state’s reforestation plan.

“They’re doing it the right way,” Chaplik said.

The state plans to leave at least eight trees standing on each acre, with thicker concentrations around trails, streams and wetlands. The 1,464 trees that are to remain were chosen carefully to minimize the adverse effects of logging on wildlife and the environment, Fike said.

“It’s a fairly heavy cut,” she said. “But it’s not taking every single tree.”

Mike Town is a school teacher and the founder of Friends of Wild Sky, a conservation group that works to preserve public lands along U.S. 2. He is working with other environmental groups to preserve at least 20 acres of the proposed timber sale area. Town wants to prevent logging on the land around new, non-motorized trails that are being built in Reiter Foothills Forest area. He suggested that the county could give local taxing districts part of its own revenue from a smaller timber sale, to make up the loss.

“We’re trying to be reasonable,” he said.

The Reiter trails are being built to provide another way for people to get to Wallace Falls. Town said they are needed because Wallace Falls State Park is crowded. But he worries people won’t use the new trails because the area will be less aesthetically appealing after it’s logged.

Dan Christian, a recreation steward for the Department of Natural Resources, said the state plans to leave a number of trees that it otherwise would have cut down to ensure the terrain around the trails still looks like a wooded area.

“They could have cut all of these trees because they’re all valuable,” he said on a tour of the property Friday.

The trails near the proposed logging site were planned for hiking, biking and horseback riding within the context of a working forest, Christian said. The state has completed about a mile of trail that leads to a bridge over a stream.

Another bridge above Wallace Falls has also been built but the state did not get grant money this year to finish the trails leading to it.

“Now, we have a bridge to nowhere,” Christian said.

He expects about three more miles of trails to the bridge to be finished in the next two years. He said the state is working to compromise on its obligation to use trust lands to generate revenue with the wishes of people who want to use the area for recreation.

Since statehood in 1889 Washington has set aside land to make money for schools and public agencies. State timber revenues are shrinking because forest health is declining and more land is being protected or developed, Fike said.

Harvesting timber on the land near Gold Bar would pave the way for future sales in the area, Fike said.

Once the forest is thinned, the department can put in bridges and build roads get to timber further north.

“It’s a stepping stone to facilitate the harvest beyond that,” Fike said. “This will have benefits far beyond this sale.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @AmyNileReports.

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