Feds want to sell Sultan River land

For sale: One beautiful canyon with a river running through it.

Good for kayaking and gold panning.

Ringed by old-growth timber and home to five species of fish, including endangered chinook salmon.

No set price – make an offer.

President Bush proposes that the U.S. Forest Service sell eight miles of the upper Sultan River to generate money for schools and roads in counties with Forest Service land.

Bush wants to sell 300,000 acres of public land around the country to generate more than $1 billion. The money would continue a program that replaces money rural communities near Forest Service lands used to get from logging.

The 1,360-acre Sultan River gorge is too isolated and rugged to be developed, but it could be logged.

The parcel is next door to the reservoir that is the source of most of Snohomish County’s drinking water, and just around the bend from Snohomish County PUD’s Jackson Hydroelectric Project.

Federal officials said they don’t know how much the land is worth, but the Forest Service in 2000 tried to sell the 1,360-acre parcel to the city of Everett for $15.5 million. At the time, the Forest Service said the land was worth $500,000 and the timber on it was worth $15 million.

Everett wants the land, but is not willing to pay $15 million for timber that can only be logged with a helicopter, said Tom Thetford, Everett’s utilities director.

“It would be very difficult, at best, to do anything with it,” he said.

Still, if the land has to be sold, the city would like to get it because it is so near the system of dams, tunnels, pumps and reservoirs that supplies 80 percent of Snohomish County’s drinking water and generates up to 8 percent of the PUD’s electricity.

The PUD is studying Bush’s proposal, said Neil Neroutsos, a PUD spokesman.

“We’re looking at how it might affect the area and our operations,” he said. “There are a number of questions we would have to answer before we could consider buying that property.”

School money threatened

The federal Rural Schools and Community Self-determination Act of 2000 expires at the end of this year.

The little-known law was adopted to replace funding that rural communities once received from logging on federal lands. Bush proposes to keep the program alive by selling parcels of land that are difficult to manage and are noncontroversial, which is how the Sultan River gorge parcel made the list.

The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has been trying to sell the land in the gorge for more than a decade, said Barbara Busse, a district ranger at the Skykomish Ranger Station.

“This is an isolated piece of national forest surrounded by other ownership,” Busse said, adding that it is more than five miles from the main forest.

Only 13 employees manage the Skykomish Ranger District’s 330,000 acres of land, which is why the Forest Service wants to unload the Sultan River parcel.

Busse said the pitch to sell the land was made at the national level, and local Forest Service officials were only asked to offer candidate parcels that might be sold.

Bush must get permission from Congress before his plan can take effect. He won’t get it from U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett.

“Congressman Larsen believes it is very important to properly fund rural school districts,” said Kim Johnston, a Larsen spokeswoman. “However, Rick does not believe that the president’s proposal to sell federal land is the right solution to this long-term funding problem.”

The Wilderness Society, a conservation group, also called the plan shortsighted, saying a permanent source of money must be found to support rural communities.

“The national forests are a long-term legacy of the nation,” said Mike Anderson, a senior resource analyst with the Wilderness Society. “There has never before been a significant sale of any of those lands. They have a lot of wildlife and recreational values.”

Anderson said Bush should help the rural communities, but should find another way to do it.

Washington state gets $45 million a year from the Forest Service program, with most going to rural counties that traditionally have depended on logging dollars, which went away when the industry basically shut down in the mid-1990s, said Tom Robinson, timber coordinator for the Washington State Association of Counties.

“The counties are heavily reliant on this income to continue to provide services,” Robinson said. “It’s very important to reauthorize it.”

Robinson’s organization hasn’t taken a position on whether selling public land is the best way to pump money into rural schools and roads, but it is happy that Bush has taken up the cause.

Snohomish County receives $2.3 million a year from Forest Service log sales. County school districts get $900,000 of that. The rest goes to programs including search and rescue, environmental education and trail repairs.

Scenic and rugged

The Sultan River gorge was once known as one of the best sections of river for whitewater kayaking in the Western Washington. The river ran hard most of the year, and the rapids were world-class.

That was before Everett and the PUD put up Culmback Dam in 1965. Now, flows through the gorge are strictly controlled and are rarely high enough to bother running, said Chris Jonason, owner of Wave Trek, a kayak and rafting outfitter in Index.

“In the last 10 years, it’s only been run six or seven times,” she said. That happens when Spada Lake gets so full the city and PUD must release extra water through the gorge.

Still, the gorge is a popular place to visit.

“It’s a beautiful little river gorge,” Jonason said, adding that she would hate to see it sold and logged. “It’s pretty untouched.”

Gold miners wonder what the sale of the Sultan River gorge would do to 17 mining claims they have on the land.

“I don’t think the U.S. Forest Service can sell it if there’s claims on it, but I don’t know the legality of it,” said Dave Eason of Marysville.

“We’d prefer for them to not sell it. We have the privilege by the 1872 mining act to mine in there to get the gold and other valuable minerals.”

Eason is a member of the Washington Prospectors Mining Association, a group of hobby gold miners that holds eight of the 17 mining claims. Individuals hold the others, he said.

“If they did sell it, we wouldn’t have a place to go locally,” Eason said.

Eason usually hikes in to dredge for gold every other weekend, adding that he and a partner can get about $70 worth of gold in a day. They mine on the shores in the winter and in the river during the summer.

“It’s gold panning and dredging – small-scale mining,” he said. “We go in there to get the gold.”

Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or lvelush@heraldnet.com.

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