GOLD BAR — On an 80-degree afternoon in July, it was cool under the mossy canopy of second-growth Douglas fir and western hemlock along the Reiter Foothills Trail.
Sunlight filtered through branches and danced on a dirt path that wound upward.
This forest is one of Snohomish County’s best-kept secrets, said Sam Chesley, 46, of the Gold Bar area. Just under two miles east of heavily trafficked Wallace Falls State Park, there was hardly a soul at the Reiter trailhead.
About 1½ miles in, the trail opened to a panoramic view of the Skykomish Valley and rugged peaks of Mount Index and Mount Persis.
With some bushwhacking, it can lead to a corridor of four waterfalls along May Creek, secluded Lake Isabel, or a new vantage point of Wallace Falls.
As Sam Chesley and his wife Rachel Chesley reached the viewpoint, he motioned to a hill across the valley stripped bare by private logging. Recent state Department of Natural Resources harvests have also left brown scabs on the landscape in the forest below.
“We can’t do anything about the private cuts,” Sam Chesley said. “But on public land, we have a choice about this.”
Over 1,180 acres of timber sales are planned in the Reiter foothills over the next five years. Most of these harvests have been years in the making, and have the potential to generate millions of dollars for junior taxing districts like local schools, fire departments, libraries, hospitals and other community services.
But a group of locals believe the Reiter Foothills Forest has more potential as an outdoor recreation destination — and that upcoming harvests would ruin that potential.
The group is proposing the county reclaim the land as a 5,300-acre park to stop timber harvests in the Reiter foothills for good.
“Being a citizen of Snohomish County, we feel like we need to raise our hands and say this is a potential boondoggle coming down the pipe,” Sam Chesley said. “We don’t want this, and here’s another option.”
The Ten-Thousand Acre Wood
Along May Creek Road, forest and scattered homes give way to a clearing peppered with piles of downed brush. Roots are left waving in the air. Scraggly stands of 30 to 40 trees are dispersed throughout a 150-acre harvest from 2018.
“No one wants to hike through that,” Sam Chesley said.
The Chesleys, along with a group called Sky Valley Future, believe DNR’s logging plans for the next decade will ruin any potential this forest has to attract recreators, and their wallets, to the valley.
The couple spent years driving from Mill Creek to Gold Bar to whitewater raft, bike and hike, before moving here in 2007.
Last year, they joined a group of locals advocating to postpone Middle May. Then in January, the group began plans for a reconveyance proposal. If successful, the 5,300 acres would be over three times as big as Lord Hill Park, the county’s largest property.
The nearby Wallace Falls State Park is key to the plan. The falls already attract roughly 200,000 visitors each year. On a busy day, cars line both sides of the road to the park for miles.
“If this was some land out in the middle of nowhere, I don’t know if we’d get the same kind of traction,” Sam Chesley said.
The forest already has some trails built by volunteers; popular climbing spots like Zeke’s Wall and the Index Town Wall; and nearly 30 miles of DNR-built trails and roads open to ATVs.
With the Middle May sale, the state plans to add about 17½ miles of trails off the Reiter Foothills Trailhead, DNR recreation manager Benjamin Hale said at a Thursday meeting.
The harvest “would make building this trail network much less expensive and a lot quicker,” Hale said. “It’s not impossible to build this trail network without this road system, people do it all the time in wilderness areas, national parks and such.”
Having roads in place allows for heavy equipment, he said.
Without logging roads, he estimates building the trails would take about $3.5 million and 15 to 20 years. With six miles of new roads and five new bridges that DNR plans to construct for Middle May, the trails should cost around $1 million, in eight to 10 years.
The roads also provide routes for search and rescue crews to reach hikers in trouble, Hale said.
Sam Chesley believes the trails are already there.
“We’re walking on an old logging road,” he said from the Reiter Foothills Trail. “We don’t need this to become a new logging road in order to walk on it.”
Chuck Lie, who has lived in Gold Bar for 20 years, said the proposal to reconvey the 5,300 acres “makes nothing but a lot of sense.”
He lives up the street from Wallace Falls.
“I think there’s a demonstrated need for additional lowland hiking opportunities in the lowlands near Wallace Falls,” Lie said.
Moving forward with the harvests, he said, would ruin that opportunity.
“Very few people drive out from Seattle to hike up massive clear cuts,” he said.
Lie benefits from funds generated by the harvests fund. But he also said the practice is an antiquated method of generating money.
“I am the junior taxing district,” he said. “I use the hospital, I’m a member of the library and I’m a lifelong supporter of public education in Washington state. I think the county has an opportunity here that will pay back financially, even if its not through the board foot.”
The history of logging in the Reiter foothills is decades long, as its residents’ opposition to it. Snohomish County owns the land, but handed management of almost 11,400 acres to the DNR in the 1950s. In the late ’80s, they started harvesting trees.
The department takes a 25% cut to cover management and DNR staff when it sells a harvest. The rest goes to maintaining county roads and to junior taxing districts.
Over the years, the Reiter Foothills Forest has generated about $45 million for Snohomish County, according to the DNR.
In the past five years, the department has harvested over 1,000 acres in the 10,000 acre forest. Nearly 800 of those acres were what’s called “variable retention harvest,” which can leave as few as eight trees per acre. The rest were “variable density thinning,” which cuts down about a third of the trees.
Of the 1,183 acres of timber sales the DNR planned in the Reiter foothills in the next five years, most are the more aggressive kind.
Tensions over the Reiter Foothills Forest peaked with the Singletary harvest in 2017, when three environmental groups sued to stop the logging.
The DNR reworked the sale into the upcoming, still-controversial Middle May harvest.
The 160-acre Middle May sale, next to Wallace Falls, could net about $1.7 million for the county and junior taxing districts. It would use the more aggressive method of harvesting.
In January, Snohomish County Councilmember Sam Low put forward a resolution supporting Middle May. It passed.
Supporters of state logging also say it reduces wildfire risk. Harvests remove flammable undergrowth and allow firefighters more access.
The woods slated for harvest are, in the bigger picture, a small price to pay for funds that would be hard to come by otherwise, Low said last week. He represents east county from Snohomish to Index.
Nearly half of the state land in the Reiter foothills is federally mandated habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl, severely limiting what harvesting the department can do there.
“What the DNR is harvesting is such a small portion out there, yet that portion benefits these smaller taxing districts.,” Low said. “(The reconveyance proposal makes) it sound like all 10,000 acres of the Reiter Foothills will be clearcut.”
Clearcut is the deepest
County park proponents say a steady stream of recreation revenue could be just as lucrative as the proposed harvests, and more sustainable long term.
In the past five years, the Reiter foothills has generated $5.7 million for Snohomish County junior taxing districts, according to the DNR. That’s not including the Skyrider and Brushcrasher sales from this year.
“It’s a lot of revenue at once, and then a long time before you see more again,” DNR spokesperson Kenny Ocker said via email.
The Sultan School District is one of the largest beneficiaries.
Superintendent Dan Chaplik said the reconveyance proposal “is a significant problem.”
The district receives about $400,000 per year on average from harvest sales, he said.
It has used that money to buy curriculum, new football field turf, gym seating and a new roof at the high school.
The district is “property-poor,” meaning property tax is lower than districts to the west, he said. DNR funding helps offset that.
Five sales are planned in the Reiter foothills by 2021, according to DNR. Chaplik said his district could lose out on millions if the land is reconveyed.
Snohomish County also gets about $1.2 million for road maintenance from harvests each year, Low said.
County Councilmember Megan Dunn said she thinks the county council might support a plan to reconvey, if a viable funding alternative is nailed down and stakeholder concerns are addressed.
Dunn mentioned a parks foundation or paid parking as potential substitute funding sources.
“I think it’s possible to find a solution that meets everyone’s needs,” she said.
But Low said the county just doesn’t have the resources to maintain a massive new park.
He pointed to 80 acres the county has owned in Sultan for years with visions of creating Steelhead Park.
“This land is currently a healthy stand of knotweed,” said Debbie Copple, executive director of the Sky Valley Chamber of Commerce in Sultan.
A foothills park would need upkeep and probably a new ranger.
“There’s not been the capacity to do that,” Low said.
As it is, recreation in the foothills is difficult to find unless you already know it well. If the forest is turned into a county park, Copple fears that won’t change.
“If we choose to reconvey this land to county management, it will stay exactly how it is right now … ” Copple wrote in an email. “That is not supporting anyone, unless you are one of the select few who know how to access it.”
In 2010, the DNR outlined plans to add hiking and biking trails, equestrian paths, all-terrain vehicle courses and camping areas through harvests in the coming years.
“Removing this land from DNR management removes the possibility of creating recreational opportunities in the near future as well as costing the taxing districts millions,” Copple said.
The Chesleys, however, pointed to a 2019 state Recreation and Conservation Office study that says King and Chelan counties see over $490 million and $300 million from trail-based recreation compared to about $106 million per year in Snohomish County.
“Highway 2 is just dramatically behind in terms of the recreational component, trails and whatnot,” Sam Chesley said.
Outdoor tourism related to the Lake Serene trail in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest brings in about $834,000 annually, according to the Conservation Office.
“There are palpable economic drivers being created from these recreation opportunities,” Rachel Chesley said.
Like Dunn, she thinks there’s a funding option out there that serves everyone’s needs.
“There’s kind of this narrative of like, you’re getting money from harvesting trees or you’re not. It’s black and white,” Rachel Chesley said. “What we’re trying to point out is that it’s not.”
A long and winding road
Snohomish County has used reconveyance to develop parks before.
It doesn’t happen overnight.
The process to create the Sky Valley Shooting Park near Sultan Basin Road began in 2002, and it wasn’t finalized until 2011. The property is still under development, county Parks, Recreation and Tourism director Tom Teigen said.
The county asked for reconveyance of 25 acres between the Singletary sale and Wallace Falls State Park in 2017, but later backed out. Those acres were left outside of the Middle May boundaries.
Since the county already owns the land, reconveyance is a relatively inexpensive way to create large parks. The financial impact is in the loss of revenue, Teigen said.
Reconveyance would require several hundred thousand dollars to survey the land, Low said.
Not all of the state land in the Reiter forest can be reconveyed. Some of it is a part of the Common School Trust, which helps build schools across the state. Of the 11,400 acres of state forest in the foothills, about 23% are in the trust.
For the proposed park to become a reality, trust acres would have to be transferred elsewhere in Snohomish County.
“They’d have to find other state forest land within Snohomish County and do a value-for-value swap,” said Angus Brodie, DNR uplands deputy supervisor.
It’s convoluted, but it can be done.
In 2008, Whatcom County began an arduous process of reconveying nearly 9,000 acres of forest around Lake Whatcom. It took at lot of swapping land before it was finalized in 2014, Brodie said.
The Board of Natural Resources can’t consider starting that process in the Reiter Foothills unless it’s formally brought to them by the county council.
And it has no discretion in saying “yes” or “no” to a reconveyance request from the county, Brodie said.
“We’re aware of what’s going on and we’re aware of the interests of (this group), but as of now it’s not an official opinion from the county,” he said.
Low said his constituents likely fall on both sides of the issue.
“My district is very diverse,” Low said. “You’re going to find people on all sides.”
But in Gold Bar, where residents are closest to the proposed harvests, city councilmember Kendall Wallace said most residents are against the logging. The city has passed two resolutions seeking to cease the harvests.
“I think the will of the people out here is that they want it to stop,” Wallace said. “We are afraid of the impact it would have on tourism.”
East county residents have organized to save forests before. In 2006, a group rallied to purchase 143 acres at Heybrook Ridge to prevent a clearcut there. Now, over 1,000 have signed on to a Sky Valley Future petition to stop logging near the Reiters Foothill Trailhead.
The Tulalip Tribes released a statement Friday to The Daily Herald, opposing reconveyance of the land.
“It would create a fractionated landscape that would damage treaty-reserved resources and have an associated impact on the wildlife corridor in the area,” the statement read. “Tribal people have been managing these lands since time immemorial and were not bystanders.”
Low said he’d need to hear from more stakeholders, like motorized recreators and equestrians.
Before the Singletary harvest, DNR worked with the county on public outreach for a nearly a year, including half a dozen trips to the site.
“If we need to have that meeting again,” Low said, “let’s do it.”
The Chesleys feel a sense of urgency to preserve the forest before Middle May, and other timber harvests, take place in the months ahead.
The public comment period for Middle May has come and gone. The Board of Natural Resources is set to vote on it in September or October, Brodie said.
Several of the sale’s logging roads, some 60 feet wide, will intersect with existing trails off the Reiter Foothills Trailhead. The Chesleys walk there almost daily with their three yellow labs.
“If they do make this a logging road,” Rachel Chesley said, “we won’t be alive by the time it looks like this again.”
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
What about wildfire?
• The land where Middle May is planned hasn’t been maintained since the 1950s, so it poses a wildfire risk. A harvest would remove undergrowth and allow firefighters more access.