The top of Mount St. Helens was obscured by clouds on a late May afternoon when a conservationist and a timber company executive admired the view from the McClellan viewpoint, along Curly Creek Road in Skamania County.
No problem. They weren’t there to see the volcano’s snowy summit. They were there to see the forested hills below the rim, which stood out clearly.
So, now, does the future of those forested acres.
“See the clearcuts and forest at various stages of forestry? That’s essentially what we preserved,” said Cherie Kearney, Columbia Land Trust forest conservation director. She gestured toward the mountains with one hand while holding an iPad displaying a map in the other. “That, to me, looks good.”
She was pointing to 24,000 acres of timberland — most of it owned by Poulsbo-based Pope Resources. For more than a decade she’s been negotiating the future of that land with Jon Rose, vice president of Pope’s real estate division, and others from their organizations.
Back then, a housing boom in this isolated part of Skamania County threatened to replace the forest with clusters of subdivisions and hundreds of homes. The prospect of massive residential development between the volcano and Swift Reservoir ignited an intense and often acrimonious debate across the political spectrum. But Rose and Kearney drove negotiations that brought together unlikely allies and smoothed over some historic rifts.
The final piece is due to come together on June 15, when they plan to close on a $4 million sale of conservation easements on about 7,800 of those acres. Pope will continue operating it as timberland while guaranteeing the land will never be developed. The Washington Department of Natural Resources will own the easements. The federal government provided the grant.
“Thanks to generous funding from the U.S. Forest Service, this large swath of prime forest will remain just that: forest, never to be developed,” said state Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. “The people of Washington gain the assurance that this working forest will continue to provide jobs to the local economy, clean water, habitat and open land for generations to come.”
The sale is the fourth and final phase of a pact struck between the Columbia Land Trust and Pope. Dubbed the Mount St. Helens Forest Conservation project, it was announced in 2009.
“We said (we would conserve) 20,000 acres in 10 years and we’ve pretty much got that done,” Kearney said.
The Wild West
More than a decade ago savvy real estate developers took advantage of Skamania County’s lack of zoning regulations between Swift Reservoir and the south side of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Because the state Growth Management Act didn’t require Skamania or neighboring Cowlitz counties to zone rural land, property speculators had carte blanche to slice more than 34,000 acres of private timberland into small developable lots.
Between 2000 and 2006, Skamania County officials approved 131 building lots around Swift before the commission passed a moratorium in 2006 on new development, according to Columbian archives. Those lots were created in four-lot “short plats,” which didn’t require significant environmental analysis.
The houses being built around Swift were nothing like the stereotypical backwoods cabin, but more like the luxury homes surrounding Lacamas Lake. Gated blacktop roads branched off U.S. Forest Service roads, leading to skinny lots and big houses that were all completely off the grid. They used standby generators and solar cells to produce electricity, wells for water and septic systems for waste disposal.
Skamania County officials feared housing development around Swift would mushroom and all those people would demand public services like school busing, law enforcement and emergency medical response — things that the cash-strapped county could hardly afford. So they intervened.
“There was the potential of 28,000 homes up there. That’s literally bigger than the rest of the county,” said former Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce, who was in office from 2005 until 2013. “There’s (about) 12,000 people in the county — there aren’t even that many homes here.”
“It was the Wild West,” Rose said — a term Pearce also used. “They were buying these pieces of land, platting them and selling them as fast as they could get them platted. It was amazing. All of the sudden people in Stevenson freaked out.”
Actually, to hear Pearce tell it, everyone freaked out.
Federal and state agencies and environmentalists were concerned about endangered species. Outdoors enthusiasts were mad about what the development would do to recreation. The Skamania County sheriff was worried about having to patrol the mountains in winter. The people who already bought houses around Swift didn’t want any more neighbors. After the commission passed a building moratorium, and a facilitator was hired to developed a “vision map” for future land use around Swift, developers, who had in some cases invested millions of dollars in the area, accused the county of reinventing the rules in the middle of the game.
“It was pandemonium,” Pearce said. “To anybody walking in the door we were wrong.”
After one particularly nasty meeting, Pearce recalled turning to another commissioner to say, “Well, at least they weren’t throwing beer bottles at us.”
A big division
Pope Resources purchased 24,000 acres of timberland around the Swift Reservoir in 2001, and, by a large margin, became the area’s largest private property owner. In 2006, when the moratorium was in place and the county was developing a plan for the area, one of Pope’s representatives urged the county to slow down.
“Pope Resources wants you to know that they have a very active, successful development company working throughout the Northwest and in other countries,” a planning consultant wrote to the county, adding that the company wanted the option to “aggressively pursue” development of its
Swift-area land into 5-acre, 2-acre or even 1-acre clustered lots.
But that year the county changed zoning rules to reduce housing density around Swift. That substantially reduced Pope’s development options and its land value.
“That immediately put us at loggerheads. We were threatening litigation,” Rose said.
The next year, prior to the new zoning laws taking effect, Pope quickly and clandestinely subdivided its 24,000 acres into 1,200
20-acre development lots. The threat of more homes was greater than ever.
Rose said it was a defensive strategy and the company never actually planned to develop all 1,200 sites, but acted to preserve a higher property value. But the move sent shock waves through the community and created an even greater sense of urgency than the Columbia Land Trust was able to harness.
“It brought everybody to the table,” Rose said. “Without a threat there’s no conservation.”
“Oh definitely,” Kearney of the land trust said in response. “We never could have raised the money or raised the awareness without that whole crisis atmosphere. We wouldn’t have even come out here. … We thought people were out here just cutting down trees.”
The Vancouver-based land trust, which specializes in conserving sensitive land by compensating willing landowners, had been watching the situation unfold.
Its officials cringed at the idea of seeing high-quality timberland turned into housing, and became especially concerned once they realized that the development was directly adjacent to Pine Creek, which is habitat for bull trout and near northern spotted owl habitat — both of which are listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
When the land trust decided to reach out to Pope to find a solution, there was a lingering hostility that took time for all parties to get over. But Rose and Kearney valued the art of negotiation and compromise. The two organizations hammered out a deal to put 85 percent of Pope’s holdings into conservation and leave 15 percent for recreational development.
To Pearce, at first they were just two more voices in a hostile choir. He was commissioner of a staunchly conservative county with a constituency still sore at the environmental movement and the passage of the Northwest Forest Plan — which many residents blame for decimating the county’s traditional logging industry. Close to 80 percent of Skamania is federally owned, sitting in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest — and another 10 percent is private forests. Thus, when the land trust’s Kearney walked into Pearce’s office for the first time, he figured the meeting wouldn’t go well.
“She introduced herself and I immediately said, ‘Oh great. What can I do for you that’s not going to get me shot?’ ” Pearce recalled. “People were and still do carry around 30-inch chainsaws. They don’t realize the timber industry sorta ended in 1992.”
The first time Rose approached Pearce, things didn’t go too well, either.
“The first meeting I went to with Paul Pearce, who’s a big dude, a former undercover cop, he looked at me and I was like ‘Oh my God, that guy hates me, he freaking hates me,’ ” Rose said. “But he was really bright and visionary, and he could see that we were collaborating” with the land trust.
The two are good friends now. In fact, Rose and Kearney attended Pearce’s recent wedding. But Pearce confirmed he had hard feelings toward Rose in the beginning. To Pearce, Rose was another upset developer — but one with a big company behind him.
But the more Pearce learned about the plan — conserving about 20,800 acres, with most of it staying in forestry use, with about 3,100 acres for potential cabin development — the more supportive he and the rest of the county leadership became.
“Everybody wanted something,” Kearney said. “Pope Resources wanted to secure zoning that would allow them to at least develop a portion of their property. … The county wanted to restrict development and keep forestry, but without being too directorial. … Columbia Land Trust wanted to keep the land (in) forestry and we wanted to have a little bit of it to go for wildlife habitat. It’s where we overlapped that we started to communicate.”
Pearce said he was excited about the prospect of keeping much of the forest in timber production and supported the overall plan. In fact, when the land trust was applying for competitive federal and state grants, he twice drove to Olympia with them to present their proposals to the relevant grant review committees.
The Mount St. Helens Forest Conservation project was implemented in four phases:
- Phase one came in April 2010, when the land trust negotiated a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service to purchase conservation easements on about 6,900 acres of Pope’s lands. Though the money came from the Forest Service, the state DNR holds those easements.
- Phase two included a $6 million grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The trust used that money to purchase about 2,300 acres of Pope’s land along Pine Creek, prime bull trout habitat south of Mount St. Helens, in 2013. The land has been operated as a timber farm, but over the course of the next 80 years the land trust plans to use forestry operations to give the stand the characteristics of an old growth forest.
- In December 2014, the land trust announced it had purchased the development rights on more than 3,100 acres of Pope land for $1.1 million. That constituted phase three.
- That left the final 7,800 acres for phase four. That easement sale is expected to be finished at the end of this week.
It sounds like a simple list, but Kearney and Rose say it took a lot of energy, cooperation and patience to make everything go through, and it wasn’t always successful.
“When we started, a couple of us came into a very traditional timber company. The word ‘conservation’ was married with words like ‘communism,’ ” Rose said. Pope hadn’t sold conservation easements before, and doing so at such a large scale was a big step — one some of his colleagues with a background in traditional forestry weren’t ready to take. The company owns about 120,000 acres, and manages another 100,000, so taking an unprecedented course on 20,000 acres over a decade was a significant action.
“There was so much damage done in the ’60s and ’70s and people were labeling each other … but our (CEO was) an MBA, not a forester. If I could show him on a spreadsheet why it made sense he was unemotional,” Rose said.
For the company it did make sense. Pope received payment for the value development brought to their property without actually doing any development. On top of that, they got to continue using it as a working forest.
A new era
Since Pope began working with the land trust they’ve embraced a substantial amount of conservation easement sales elsewhere, particularly around Hood Canal. When the final land trust deal is inked, they’ll have done a total of 45,000 acres of conservation easements across their holdings. The company said they’re open to selling the Columbia Land Trust another 680 acres worth of easements around Swift Reservoir.
Rose said those hard feelings that surrounded the negotiations in the first few years between foresters and conservationists have softened, not only in his own company but across the industry.
“Since we’ve started this it’s totally different. Nationally, industrywide, conservation and forestry seem to go like this,” he said knitting his fingers together. “Now the real enemy is real estate. It’s like ‘Keep those damned developers out of the woods.’ ”
The significance of finding an agreement in such an acrimonious setting isn’t lost on Kearney.
“(It’s) meaningful achieving conservation on that scale and holding relationships together with the county, timber company and the state,” Kearney said. “There’s symbolisms there … finding a path that’s balanced, a path that isn’t adversarial or one side against another, but a path that’s collaborative because it’s in a context that has a very adversarial recent past.”
Even some Skamania leaders have become more comfortable with conservation groups.
Skamania County Commissioner Tom Lannen, a Republican who was elected in 2016, said he was told by some conservative constituents to be wary of the land trust and other conservation groups. But he’s been pleasantly surprised by them and especially this pact.
“It’s kind of a unique blend of different players coming together and ending up with a reasonable outcome that suits the needs of a great many people,” he said. “From our standpoint (we get a small tax on cut logs) and we’re not running deputies up there or firetrucks. It’s something I can certainly live with.”
Dameon Pesanti: 360-735-4541; email@example.com; twitter.com/dameonoemad