Race is on to protect entire 1,600-acre core of Blanchard Mountain from logging

A view of Blanchard Working Forest mid-way up Max’s Shortcut Trail, which goes up Blanchard Mountain for access to Oyster Dome at the top, Feb. 2, 2016. Hundreds of forested acres on the mountain could be taken out of protected status and logged unless the Legislature fully pays for conservation of a 1,600-acre core.
A view of Blanchard Working Forest mid-way up Max’s Shortcut Trail, which goes up Blanchard Mountain for access to Oyster Dome at the top, Feb. 2, 2016. Hundreds of forested acres on the mountain could be taken out of protected status and logged unless the Legislature fully pays for conservation of a 1,600-acre core. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The race is on to secure $7.7 million needed to protect all 1,600 forested acres on Blanchard Mountain in Skagit County from being logged.

Gov. Jay Inslee set aside $1.5 million toward that total in his proposed budget, but supporters of full funding said this legislative session is the last chance to secure money for a 10-year agreement. If the money isn’t allocated, logging likely will begin this year on some part of the 1,600-acre core.

“The number of requests we receive each year far exceeds what we can include in the budget,” said Tara Lee, Inslee’s deputy communications director.

Popular recreation areas in the core include Oyster Dome as well as Lily and Lizard lakes, which are on land managed by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources to generate money from timber sales.

Conservationists, recreation groups and the Skagit County Board of Commissioners are pushing the state Legislature to secure funding to protect all of the core that was the centerpiece of the Blanchard Forest Strategy, reached in 2007. It was created by a diverse group that included recreation, conservation and timber interests.

The intent was to put those 1,600 acres into conservation status to allow them to grow into an old forest, and to provide habitat for wildlife and continued opportunities for recreation.

Supporters also are urging people to contact area legislators, including state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, the lead Democrat in the Senate responsible for writing Washington state’s $42 billion operating budget.

“This absolutely remains a priority and must be fully funded,” Ranker said.

But this is the year that the Legislature is under pressure to fully fund K-12 education as mandated by the state Supreme Court in the McCleary decision.

“Everyone understands that that’s the Legislature’s priority this year, and same with the governor,” said Eric Brown, trail director for the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition. “However, this is one of those opportunities that may never come again.”

Habitat, playground, working forest

Located just south of the Whatcom County line, Blanchard Mountain 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.

It has about 100,000 visitors a year.

The area also is home to more than 120 bird species and nearly 200 moth and butterfly species. All amphibians in Washington state, except for two, are found there, according to Molly Doran, executive director of the Skagit Land Trust.

Blanchard Mountain, combined with adjacent Larrabee State Park and Whatcom County parkland, provide an ecosystem on the west side of Interstate 5, a sanctuary for wildlife and people, she said.

“It’s beloved by all age groups,” Doran said, “as well as being very ecologically important.”

But the mountain is also home to 4,827 acres of forest trust land, the Blanchard Working Forest.

By law, the Department of Natural Resources must manage such trust lands to generate long-term revenue for beneficiaries.

“DNR is committed to implementing the strategy, but will not be able to do so without the remaining $7.7 million from the Legislature,” said Bob Redling, a DNR spokesman.

The remaining 3,227 acres outside of the core remain as working forest, meaning that land provides revenue for Skagit County, Burlington-Edison schools and other smaller taxing districts, with most of the money coming from timber sales.

Logging on Blanchard Mountain has occurred outside the core since 2010. It will generate about $4 million for the beneficiaries once logging from the last of four timbers sales has been completed, according to the DNR.

To offset revenue lost from not logging on the 1,600 acres on Blanchard, other land in Skagit County had to be acquired for timber harvest.

The Legislature has so far given DNR $6.5 million to do so. The deadline for getting the remaining $7.7 million was in September 2015.

“This appropriation allows the department to secure more than half of the replacement value and acres for the Blanchard Mountain core,” Lee said of the money proposed by Inslee.

If more money doesn’t come in, the group that created the plan for the forest will decide what parts of the core to log, DNR said, adding that one timber sale already has been planned this summer for the core.

Where that logging would occur and just how much would be logged isn’t known.

“At this time we do not know specifically what areas within the core would be affected if we are not successful getting full funding for core area replacement lands,” Redling said.

Supporters hope the Legislature will come through.

“Everyone’s coming together to try to make this happen,” Brown said. “Now the question is, can we get it to the finish line and find that extra funding?”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

To help

The Skagit Land Trust, Conservation Northwest and Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition are among the organizations encouraging the public to push Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington state legislators to set aside the full $7.7 million needed to protect all of a 1,600-acre core on Blanchard Mountain from logging.

Details are online at skagitlandtrust.org and conservationnw.org.

Endless Film Production is organizing a hike to the top of Oyster Dome and filming a mini-documentary along the way as part of the effort to save the core. Organizers said the piece will show the beauty of the area and obtain testimony from participants about why the land should be preserved. The event begins 10 a.m. Sunday at the parking lot for the Samish Overlook. More details are in the “Events” section of Endless Film Production’s Facebook page.

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