The state’s new commissioner of public lands is hopeful that when the House of Representatives budget is released early next week, it will include the remaining $7.7 million needed to protect all of a 1,600-acre “core” of Blanchard Mountain in Skagit County from being logged.
If it doesn’t, the state Department of Natural Resources has put two other options as backup before the Legislature, Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said Wednesday.
“We’re doing everything we can to come up with strategies with the goal of trying to be successful in protecting Blanchard,” Franz said during an interview at the Skagit Valley Food Co-Op.
The budget already released by the Senate didn’t include the money, but Franz believed the House budget will.
“We are feeling pretty confident, based on the conversations that we’re having with the members of the House,” she said, although she acknowledged the Legislature faced competing demands to fund education, mental health needs and affordable housing.
“It isn’t an easy time funding wise,” Franz said.
If the House does set aside the money, she said DNR would work during negotiations, with the help of supportive legislators, to get the money to complete the implementation of what is known as the Blanchard Forest Strategy.
Located just south of the Whatcom County line, Blanchard Mountain, which has about 100,000 visitors a year, is known for its sweeping views. It is part of the Chuckanut Range and is a favorite destination for hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders as well as paragliders and hang gliders.
Conservationists, recreation groups and the Skagit County Board of Commissioners have been pushing the state Legislature to secure funding to protect all of the 1,600 acres that formed the centerpiece of the Blanchard Forest Strategy, reached about a decade ago. It was created by a diverse group that included recreation, conservation and timber interests.
The 4,800-acre Blanchard Working Forest is overseen by DNR, which, by law, must manage such forest trust land to provide revenue, primarily through timber sales, for Skagit County, Burlington-Edison schools and other smaller taxing districts in that county.
Logging would occur elsewhere in the forest but the idea was to allow the 1,600 acres, referred to as the “core,” to grow into an old forest, and to provide habitat for wildlife and continued opportunities for recreation.
Popular recreation areas within the core include Oyster Dome, a beloved trail with breathtaking views at the top that take in Samish Bay, the San Juan Islands, Skagit Valley and Georgia Strait.
To offset revenue lost from not logging in the core, other land in Skagit County needed to be acquired for timber harvest currently valued at $14.2 million.
The Legislature has so far set aside $6.5 million of the total needed.
The deadline for getting the remaining funds was September 2015, and DNR has said it can’t hold off on allowing logging indefinitely because of its responsibility to the beneficiaries in Skagit County.
Securing the remaining $7.7 million would meet recreation and conservation needs, fiduciary responsibilities to the beneficiaries, and help protect working forest land, which is being lost across the state and especially in the region to development because of significant population growth, according to Franz.
DNR is finalizing the purchase of replacement land with the money already approved by the Legislature, she said, and that should signal to lawmakers that it was time to secure the rest of the money to meet the entire commitment.
Although DNR came up with three options, the best one would be for the Legislature to set aside $7.7 million in the budget to replace the remaining timber value set aside in the 1,600-acre core. It’s also the option preferred by the beneficiaries and others who helped craft the agreement.
The Legislature also could transfer the land into two different programs, the State Forest Lands Replacement Program and the Trust Land Transfer Program.
But Franz said those two options had shortcomings, including being more expensive at $9.5 million and requiring “legislative acrobatics” for one of the options.