Politics Blog

WWU prof: Time right for Galbraith conservation effort

A new map that will be the official source of online information for the Galbraith Mountain biking and running trails has come at a time when bicyclists and others seek to conserve the mountain for recreational use.

A story about the map ran in the Monday, June 16 Bellingham Herald.

Eric Brown, Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition trail director for Galbraith Mountain, suggested there was a Galbraith conservation movement afoot. I asked him if the map, produced by Western Washington University master's student Virginia Cleaveland, could help promote conservation of the mountain for recreational use. About 3,000 acres on the mountain, owned by Polygon Financial (which took the land over from David Syre in 2009), is currently used for both timber harvesting and trail use but is for sale.

Brown said:

"We're actually working on something like that right now. The map doesn't hurt or help it. We're working on a project; it's in its early phases. The idea is from the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition and from many other people in the community. ... I think everybody wants to see a commercial working forest with recreation on it moving forward."

I also interviewed for the story John Miles, WWU professor of environmental studies. Miles, a founder of the North Cascades Institute and a former dean of Huxley College of the Environment at Western, is optimistic for Galbraith conservation and had some ideas for how it could happen. One idea was to follow the model of the Anacortes Community Forest.

Miles also made an economic argument that recreational tourism is the best outcome for the mountain -- better than high-priced view homes or even continued timber harvesting.

Here's what he said, in an emailed response to my questions:

... This is a good moment to work on changing general public perception of Galbraith for several reasons.

One, this region around Bellingham/Whatcom County has the potential to be seen as a world class outdoor recreation "playground" for everything from mountain biking and trail running to sailing. We are or could be the "Gateway to the North Cascades" and are of course the home of perhaps the world's most unique outdoor adventure-recreation race. Put the Chuckanuts, Galbraith, Lake Whatcom, Mt. Baker, and other pieces together and what do we have? A pretty amazing opportunity to become one of America's premier destinations for outdoor fun. So Galby would be a nice piece of this puzzle.

Two, as an economic resource Galby is probably most valuable as real estate. It's value as timberland is modest now that most of the timber has recently (over the past 20 years) been logged. I'd say it will be 20-30 years before any appreciable timber revenue can come off that land up there (which is one reason it's for sale). And as for timber jobs, anyone who watched the recent timber harvest up there saw a very small crew. Mechanization has lessened the job potential from timber. Converting the area to high end real estate would yield jobs in the short run, and that would be the end of it as any sort of public resource. As a recreation resource, it would yield more jobs in the long run (though I haven't done any analysis of this - it's just my assessment from observation). So from an economic standpoint protecting the resource would probably pencil out as smart in the long run.

And here's a thought that would probably be controversial -- in the long run, portions of Galby could even by logged by the city and county without severely disrupting its recreation use, at least for mountain biking and trail running. Or, as has happened at the Anacortes City Forest, those who opposed the idea of logging could buy the timber rights. The Friends of the Anacortes City Forest raised a few million dollars to buy out the timber in that wonderful piece of land that is right on the edge of Anacortes, not unlike Galbraith is the border of Bellingham. It was a win-win for Anacortes where there is considerable wealth in the community, as there is here.

Three, a portion of the land currently for sale up there is in the Lake Whatcom Watershed. We all know why we should convert as much land in that watershed to protected status as possible.

Four, Galbraith has a constituency which is growing. Mountain bikers, trail runners, and hikers are using it in increasing numbers. So it is already a "public resource" though privately owned and thus its protection would provide considerable amenity value to the Bellingham/Whatcom County community.

Five, I have no idea how much work has been done to explore the goal of acquiring that land that is for sale. I can't even remember how many acres it is, but a $16 million price tag these days does not seem beyond the realm of possibility. As one who has been going up there for 30 years on foot and on bike, I think this would be a great bargain. The views are exceptional and it would be a place, like the Chuckanuts, where people could enjoy incredible scenery without great expense of treasure or energy. There is a Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office which has a funding commission and a mission statement that reads "Provide leadership and funding to help our partners protect and enhance Washington's natural and recreation resources for current and future generations." Could Bellingham and Whatcom County not partner with this program to make this acquisition? I don't know how much funding they have at the moment, but I'm going to find out. I note on the Web that our own former excellent state senator Harriet Spanel is or recently has been the chair of this commission.

If we start looking for partners and put Galbraith Mountain in the bigger outdoor recreation picture as Virginia began to do in her project, there might be some possibilities.