Push continues to save 1,600 acres on Blanchard Mountain from logging

A state trust land exchange could be used to protect all of a 1,600-acre piece of Blanchard Mountain in Skagit County from being logged.

That’s what state Reps. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, and Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes, said during a telephone town hall recently as they updated callers on the issue, which has generated great interest because the mountain draws hikers, mountain bikers, hang-gliders and horseback riders.

Popular recreation areas within those 1,600 acres 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.

“We fully recognize the gem that Blanchard forest is, not only to our district but to the state,” Lytton said. “There’s nothing better than going up in that area and hiking up to Oyster Dome and looking out. It’s an incredible, incredible place.”

Blanchard Mountain has about 100,000 visitors a year.

Conservationists, recreation groups and the Skagit County Board of Commissioners have been asking the state Legislature to secure funding to protect all of the 1,600 acres that was the centerpiece of the Blanchard Forest Strategy, reached nearly 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 the state Department of Natural Resources, which must manage it to provide revenue, primarily through timber sales, for Skagit County, Burlington-Edison schools and other smaller taxing districts.

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.

To offset revenue lost from not logging in the core, other land in Skagit County had to be acquired for timber harvest currently valued at $14.2 million.

The Legislature has so far set aside $6.5 million to do so.

The deadline for getting the remaining funds was September 2015, and DNR has said it can’t hold off on logging indefinitely.

The challenge in protecting the entire core thus far has been the difficulty in finding comparable land to replace the forested land on Blanchard, knowing it has to provide ongoing revenue to beneficiaries in Skagit County.

“They were literally cold-calling land owners,” Morris said in an interview about DNR’s efforts.

Now, there is land in the pipeline that could work.

Here’s where the land exchange comes in via DNR’s Trust Land Transfer Program, which could help protect the core instead of making the project compete for scarce funds from a pot of money designated for things such as buildings and parks.

If the Legislature allows the core to be put into the program, the value of the timber would go into an account to immediately provide money for K-12 schools.

Putting the core into the program also provides a buffer of two to three years, Morris said, and that could help if the current land negotiation unravels.

Morris and Lytton described the transfer program as the “surest pathway” to the effort to protect the entire core.

Supporters also had feared that logging could start in the core as soon as this summer but Morris said DNR hadn’t taken steps toward that, which means the soonest logging could arguably start would be in 2018.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

A natural tribute

Legislation has been introduced to name the 1,600-acre core on Blanchard Mountain the Harriet Spanel Memorial Forest.

State Reps. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, and Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes, announced the proposal during a telephone town hall on Thursday.

Spanel, a Democrat from Bellingham, died Feb. 2, 2016, at age 77. She served three terms in the House of Representatives and four terms in the Senate, representing the 40th District from 1987 to 2009. The district covers portions of Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties.

She served as caucus chairwoman for Senate Democrats her last decade in office.

Morris said Spanel, for decades, took the lead in efforts to preserve Blanchard Mountain as well as the nearby Chuckanut area and Lake Whatcom watershed for multiple use.

“It just seemed to be a fitting recognition of her service for the community,” Morris said.