Hundreds of forested acres at the top of Blanchard Mountain could be taken out of protected status and set aside for logging unless the Legislature gives another $7.7 million to fully pay for its conservation.
Areas that could be affected include Oyster Dome and the Samish Overlook.
A timber sale for a portion of the 1,600-acre core could occur as soon as June 2017.
The core was the centerpiece of the Blanchard Forest Strategy, which was finalized in 2008. It was created by a diverse group that included recreation, conservation and timber interests.
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The idea was to allow those 1,600 acres to grow into an old forest, and to provide habitat for wildlife and continued opportunities for recreation.
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, horseback riders and hang-gliders.
But it’s also home to 4,827 acres of forest trust land known as the Blanchard Working Forest and overseen by the state Department of Natural Resources.
By law, DNR must manage such trust lands to generate long-term revenue for beneficiaries no matter “how laudable” other interests might be, said Kyle Blum, the agency’s deputy supervisor for state uplands.
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.
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 initial deadline for getting the remaining $7.7 million passed in September, but backers of the plan are pushing this legislative cycle and the next to get the needed funding.
I’m an optimist. I believe that when people communicate their concern, the Legislature listens.
Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest
In October, members sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee asking for the money for the remaining land acquisition. Signers included Skagit County government, the Skagit Land Trust, Backcountry Horsemen, Conservation Northwest, Sierra Pacific Industries, and the school district.
“It is important to the county as a beneficiary. We finally had to say ‘we can’t wait any longer for this,’ ” said Kendra Smith, a consultant for Skagit County government who worked on the plan.
Meanwhile, conservationists as well as people who play on the mountain are urging people to contact area legislators, including Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, who is among the legislators helping to write the state budget.
“We’ll know in a month and if we don’t get the funding in this session, then we’ll do field trips with the Legislature during the summer and do everything we can to get funding,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, who was part of the group that created the plan for the forest.
Conservation Northwest alerted people to the need for more money and the threat of the core being logged. Friedman said more than 2,000 people responded to that alert within a week.
“So people really care. I’m an optimist. I believe that when people communicate their concern, the Legislature listens,” Friedman said.
In its alert, Conservation Northwest said the forest could be clear-cut because, Friedman said, that’s what it would look like to the average person.
DNR officials said they wouldn’t allow such logging on its lands, noting that they follow sustainable growth, forest regeneration and habitat conservation requirements that include leaving at least eight trees per acre.
It’s not surprising that people are worried. Popular recreation areas within the core include:
▪ Lily and Lizard lakes and the campsites by each lake.
▪ Oyster Dome viewpoint.
▪ North Butte viewpoint.
▪ Samish Overlook.
▪ About 8 miles out of a total of 11 1/2 miles of trail in Blanchard Forest.
At least 55,000 people go there annually, according to a visitor count from four years ago.
Organizations trying to protect the core of Blanchard said DNR wants to do the same but it must get the additional funding, even as they recognize that the Legislature has struggled because of the recession and the need to fully fund K-12 education as mandated by the state Supreme Court in the McCleary decision.
“The challenge is just tight budgets,” DNR’s Blum said.
Ranker said he’ll continue to try to get the funding, although $7.7 million could be a challenge during this supplemental budget year.
“That said, I’m still pushing it. I hope to be successful. I would feel much more confident next year, but I think there’s still a real chance. I think it’s a critical project,” Ranker said, adding that Blanchard also is important because recreation generates jobs.
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.
Where that logging would occur and just how much would be logged can’t be known now, according to DNR.
“We have no way of knowing exactly what future harvests would look like. Each harvest is designed according to the site and applicable laws, rules and agreements,” said Bob Redling, DNR spokesman.
What is known is that not all of the core would be logged, given that the Legislature already has given $6.5 million. But that still leaves 700 to 800 acres that could be transferred out of long-term protection.
The affected acres wouldn’t all be logged at the same time, according to Blum.
For his part, Friedman said Conservation Northwest isn’t looking beyond getting the remaining dollars.
“Our job is to get the funding,” Friedman said, “and we’re going to stay focused on that.”