Peacemaker brought into fray over UW branch campus

OLYMPIA — A man who negotiated peace in major conflicts on fishing rights and timber harvesting now will try to resolve the dispute on where to build a new four-year university in Snohomish County.

Starting Monday, Bill Wilkerson will seek ways to end feuding on the location among elected leaders of Snohomish, Island and Skagit counties, a fight that’s dampened once-bright prospects for the proposed University of Washington branch campus.

Wilkerson, who headed the state fisheries department in the 1980s, was the state’s lead negotiator on the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty and with American Indian tribes, federal authorities and fishing and timber interests on the 1987 Timber-Fish-Wildlife Agreement dealing with management of fisheries and natural resources.

Later, as executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, he played a central role in enactment of the Forests and Fish law in 1999, changing forest practices to better protect riparian habitat on tribal and nonfederal forest land.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, one of the key protagonists in the stalemated college site talks, praised the choice of Wilkerson.

“He a guy with some gravitas who can go around and talk with folks about this,” Dunshee said.

Wilkerson was hired by the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board, the agency responsible for bringing the community’s recommendations on a site to state lawmakers by Dec. 1. His $10,000-a-month contract ends Nov. 30.

“Bill Wilkerson is an especially strong choice for this important assignment,” Ann Daley, executive director of the higher education board, said in a statement issued Friday.

Wilkerson said Friday he’s getting the lay of the terrain on this issue. He expects to visit political, community and business leaders in each county to fully understand the positions of those involved.

“There’s never a magic way to get agreement. The key is getting people focused on a solution,” he said. “I’ll talk to anybody who really wants to talk to us about a solution.”

Creation of the branch campus was advancing at a steady clip until parties stalled in late 2007 on the question of where it should be built.

Problems exploded in November when a $1 million state-financed study ranked two dozen acres surrounding the transit center in Everett as the top site, slightly ahead of several hundred undeveloped acres in Marysville near Smokey Point.

Dueling between the cities and among legislators began almost immediately.

Dunshee, Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett and Sens. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, and Jean Berkey, D-Everett, coalesced around the transit center site.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, leads a contingent behind the Marysville land that includes Reps. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, and Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon.

Entering the 2008 legislative session, the state had set aside roughly $2 million to pay for the classes at a temporary site this year. A permanent site needed to be identified in order to move ahead. When that did not happen, the money evaporated.

“There’s still opportunity to get the (UW) flag,” Dunshee said this week.

Sells said he’s less optimistic than he’s been in the past. He’s looking to get a commitment for expansion.

“If we can get some kind of policy statement that says (the college) will be here, then it will be a matter of whether there is the budget to do much,” he said.

The 2008 Legislature included $100,000 in the state budget to keep the conversation going. Part of it will now be spent on Wilkerson these next eight weeks.

“There’s no question it is a fairly tight timeline. The Legislature clearly intended to put some pressure on folks to see if we can succeed and pick a location,” he said.

“You never come to an agreement in a complex negotiation until the parties realize it is time to make a decision. I have no idea if this is the time,” he said.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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