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Panel Recommends Transferring Watershed Land for Parks

August 6, 2008

By Jared Paben, The Bellingham Herald, Wash.

Aug. 5–Transferring 8,400 acres in the Lake Whatcom watershed to Whatcom County for parks would help protect Bellingham’s drinking-water source and give the community a unique park, a panel has said.

The recommendation came from a panel County Executive Pete Kremen created to study the proposed transfer of state Department of Natural Resources-managed land to the county for parks. Under state law, counties can ask to transfer some DNR-managed lands to counties for parks purposes without having to buy the land.

“I think that we all agree that commercial forestry in the watershed is not the major cause of deteriorating water quality,” wrote panel member Rand Jack, also a Whatcom Land Trust board member. “However, it is hard to imagine that a maturing, intact forest would not better buffer the lake and control erosion and phosphorous loading than an actively managed commercial forest with regular harvesting, road work and forestry operations.”

The panel approved of the plan with an 8-3 vote. Some panel members weren’t convinced the transfer would help reverse the deterioration of the quality of the lake’s water, source of drinking water in the Bellingham area. Strict logging rules are already in place, and taking over the land would result in major costs to county taxpayers, as well as liabilities if a disaster were to occur, states a dissenting opinion submitted by panel member Tom Westergreen.

“Forest management is not a significant water quality issue for Lake Whatcom, especially when compared to expanding urbanization,” wrote Westergreen, log manager at Great Western Lumber Co. “The preserving of watershed forests is just the easier, more politically expedient option rather than dealing with the real issues at Lake Whatcom.”

The panel’s majority conditioned its recommendation on Whatcom County abiding by strict management conditions, placing land-use rights in trust and making efforts to compensate the Mount Baker School District for lost timber sales revenues.

DNR takes a cut of the timber sales and gives the rest to local governments and districts.

A loss of $187,000 a year to the Mount Baker School District is why Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt, a panel member and school district board member, voted against it. The majority recommendation states the county should “make every effort” to compensate the district, but Pfeiffer-Hoyt wrote that it should be a requirement instead.

On Monday, Aug. 4, Bellingham staff briefed the City Council, which intends to provide a recommendation to the Whatcom County Council.

The County Council will consider the proposal in September.

Reach Jared Paben at 715-2289 or jared.paben@bellinghamherald.com.

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Reach JARED PABEN at jared.paben@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2289.

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