Southwest Washington tree farming family is glad to let go of some land

RIDGEFIELD — Just before the Lewis River bends toward its confluence with the Columbia River, in the far northwest corner of Clark County, the Morgan family owns a little slice of paradise.

At least it seems that way on a brisk afternoon with the sun glinting off an ice-covered lake surrounded by green fir-covered slopes. Yet David Morgan, who, at 36, represents the third generation of a 1,500-acre tree farm, is prepared to give much of it away.

“I’m all for it,” he said.

The Morgan family is a key part of a multiparty land swap involving Clark County, the state Department of Natural Resources and Columbia Land Trust. The goal is to conserve an ecologically rich area between the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and the confluence of the east and north forks of the Lewis River.

In between, accessible from the north only through a locked gate, sits Mud Lake.

Morgan has fond memories of canoeing on the lake as a child. His father, Rhidian Morgan, planted much of the surrounding lowlands in water-tolerant cedar. Cottonwoods and Oregon white oaks shade much of the area between the lake and its outfall near a back channel of the Lewis River.

Biologists tell the family this is all great salmon habitat, and Morgan knows first-hand that it’s fantastic for ducks, geese and raptors such as bald eagles nesting nearby.

The family has harvested and replanted much of the low-lying area, but another harvest could be difficult in light of modern environmental restrictions around shorelines and wetlands. Even if they could, Rhidian Morgan indicated in a previous interview, the family believes the land is best left alone.

“They’re paving over a hell of a lot of Clark County,” he said.

His son agrees.

“It’s essentially some level of park anyway,” said David Morgan. “I don’t think there would ever be a harvest that makes sense.”

In turning back the forces of development, the Morgan family is in a somewhat ironic position. They live in the oldest frame mansion in Washington.

Built by Oregon Supreme Court chief Justice Thomas Lancaster in 1850, the Southern, colonial-style home has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974. The Morgan family purchased it in 1941, using the surrounding property as a dairy and tree farm.

The family will keep the house.

Under the deal currently being negotiated, the Morgan family would get 118 acres of state timberland in return for ceding 320 to 340 acres of property ringing the lake. Columbia Land Trust holds a conservation easement on the state timberland, ensuring that it must always be managed for forestry rather than subdivided and cleared for home sites.

The state Board of Natural Resources last month approved the transfer of the state timberland to Clark County for $2.3 million.

The county, using a land conservation fund generated by a tax on real estate, will convey the land to the Morgan family in return for the equivalent value of land around the lake. Combined with a 70-acre park at the south end of the lake owned by Columbia Land Trust along Northwest Allen Canyon Road, it may be possible to eventually build a publicly accessible trail ringing the lake.

“I think it would be marvelous,” David Morgan said.

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