Barring a delay, the "reconveyance," an issue that has dogged the Whatcom County Council for six years, will be decided at the council meeting Tuesday, March 12.
Observers expect passage of the resolution, which asks the state to transfer land around Lake Whatcom to the county for use as a park. The vote probably won't come until late Tuesday night, after a second public hearing. The council took comments for four hours on Sept. 11, 2012, the date of the first hearing.
The issue is complex, and the two sides have their own interpretations of the facts - not to mention opinions. Emotion has gotten the better of reason in the debate, a council member said.
"I will get feedback from opponents and proponents about the exact same dataset, and both of them will feel it supports their point of view," council member Ken Mann said. "I think it's become so politicized and so emotional that advocates and opponents have lost their ability to rationally evaluate it."
Reconveyance happens, according to state code, when state forest lands "are needed by the county for public park use." Decades ago, counties conveyed some forested properties to the state after taking them from private owners - after a tax foreclosure, for example. The state's role then is to manage timber harvesting by private companies, to collect revenue from the harvests and distribute it to local taxing districts, such as schools.
If almost 9,000 acres on the west and east flanks of Lake Whatcom watershed are reconveyed back to the county, a proposal formally announced in 2007, that doesn't necessarily mean the end of state-managed timber harvesting. As long as it is consistent with the aims of the park, harvesting can continue, state code says.
Timber activity would be dramatically reduced, however. Parks and Recreation Director Mike McFarlane told the council on Jan. 29 that while the state plans to build 20 miles of new logging roads on the land, the county would retire nine miles of road if the land were reconveyed.
IMPACTS ON FORESTRY
The harm reconveyance would cause the timber industry depends on whom you ask.
In a Wednesday, March 6, email to council members, Rand Jack, board member at Whatcom Land Trust and a supporter of the reconveyance, said two full-time timber jobs per year would be lost. Jack also argued the lost timber revenue for local jurisdictions would be zero, in large part because the lands chosen for reconveyance have some of the steepest slopes and are not well-suited for harvesting.
Tom Westergreen, a forester at Great Western Lumber Co. in Everson, said Jack's analysis overlooks some on-the-ground realities. Little cutting has occurred on land earmarked for reconveyance, leaving much of the acreage there ripe for harvesting, he said. Also, timber prices are rebounding to pre-recession levels.
Because the debate is being led by the interested parties, the two sides are only talking at each other, offering competing analyses of the facts. Westergreen proposed a solution.
"I might have an agenda, defending an industry that's important to this county, and I'm trying not to exaggerate numbers," Westergreen said. "Get a third party to do an economic analysis of the costs and the lost revenues."
Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, has seen Jack's and Westergreen's numbers, and he agrees with Westergreen that a third-party study is needed. He would like to see the council put off its vote until the study is completed.
"Both sides have some great arguments. What we really need is someone to come in and take an independent look at this," Oplinger said.
"Taking a position on this now, before we get a more informed view of what the economic impacts would be, would give the impression someone is making a political decision rather than an economic decision," he said.
For conservation groups, and for many of the 100,000 people whose tap water originates in Lake Whatcom, water quality is also a factor in the decision. Improved protection of the lake water is frequently cited as a benefit of reconveyance.
Opponents are quick to point out that current forestry rules are just as protective of Lake Whatcom as a hiking-and-biking park with old-growth trees. Steve Hood, a water quality engineer with the state Department of Ecology, said that's technically correct.
"We know a natural forest is not identical to managed forest, but it's not a (difference) we can quantify," he said.
The only advantage to converting the land into a park, Hood said, would be in reducing the risk that protection rules would be violated during harvesting or road construction.
The landscape plan that governs forest practices around Lake Whatcom is stricter than the state's rules.
"I believe today's logging practices are much, much better than they used to be," said Mann, who has said he will vote "yes" on reconveyance. "If they follow the landscape plan, then yes, there will be a negligible improvement with the reconveyance. But I just think that's a big 'if.'"
Council member Barbara Brenner, who opposes the reconveyance, said violations of the landscape plan are highly unlikely, given the costs foresters would incur if they broke the rules.
"We could be hit by an asteroid tomorrow, too," she said.
There's a good chance the reconveyance will pass Tuesday. Of the seven council members, Mann, Pete Kremen and Carl Weimer appear ready to vote "yes." Brenner and Bill Knutzen are opposed. Kathy Kershner has remained skeptical during deliberations but has not expressed opposition.
Council member Sam Crawford seems comfortable with the reconveyance, especially if some timber harvesting is allowed in the park.
"I think what the council supports are opportunities for selective harvest and to manage that land for park purposes in the future," he said in an interview.
But if there's another long public hearing on Tuesday, it won't be time wasted, Crawford said.
"I certainly believe, and hopefully the citizens of Whatcom County believe, I have an open mind," he said. "That (hearing) will be a valuable opportunity for us to hear any final input before we take an anticipated vote."
Crawford asked people who plan to speak at the meeting to review McFarlane's three presentations to council given over the past two months. The presentations are available on the county's Parks and Recreation webpage.
"There's a lot of information out there about this that has been blogged upon, researched and discussed," Crawford said. "It does present a challenge when people are working off of different assumptions going in."
ATTEND THE MEETING
What: Whatcom County Council will hold a public hearing and likely vote on an 8,844-acre land transfer to establish a park around Lake Whatcom
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 12. A large crowd is expected; doors open at 5.
Where: County Council chambers, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.
More information: WhatcomCounty.us/parks