Washington Old Growth Forest Removed From Logging Land Swap

SEATTLE, Washington, November 3, 1999 (ENS) - The U.S. federal government is close to completing a major land swap agreement with the Plum Creek Timber Co. in Washington state. The deal would preserve vast tracts of old growth forests and consolidate federally held forest lands, but some environmentalists fear the government is giving up too much.

The so called I-90 Land Exchange, named because much of it borders Interstate 90 in Washington, was introduced last year by U.S. Senators Patty Murray, a Democrat, and Slade Gorton, a Republican, both of Washington state. The original deal would have traded 54,000 acres of forest land owned by Plum Creek to the U.S. Forest Service in exchange for almost 17,000 acres of publicly owned land, including 5,554 acres from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

cooper lake

Cooper Lake is part of the disputed land trade (Photo courtesy Plum Creek)
The trading of the deeds was delayed when endangered marbled murrelets were found in sections of the Green River Watershed slated to go to Plum Creek. Marbled murrelets are sea going birds that nest only in old growth forests.

Late Tuesday, a new, much reduced agreement was drafted that excludes two of the most controversial tracts, Fossil Creek and Watch Mountain. A spokeswoman for Gorton said that under the new agreement, about 48 square miles (30,720 acres) will come into government ownership, while Plum Creek will get about 16 square miles (10,240 acres) of federal lands.

Plum Creek also would pledge not to log another five timber parcels for three years, giving the government time to draft a second deal to preserve them as well. So far, details about the size and location of these parcels has not been released.

"Today's agreement is remarkable," Gorton said in a statement. "This is a great package that enjoys broad support ... (The) land exchange moves one step closer to completion."


Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, praised the revised agreement (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Senator Murry applauded the revised deal, though she noted it is still tentative.

"I am pleased we may have a solid compromise that addresses the concerns of the people in Randle and Lewis County while still protecting the integrity of the land exchange," said Murry.

The exchange is intended eliminate much of the "checkerboard" land ownership pattern in the central Cascades. In the 1800s, the government deeded ownership of every other mile of land over a vast area to Plum Creek's predecessor, the Northern Pacific Railroad. If Plum Creek were to log those tracts, some biologists say it would effectively destroy the forest, leaving treeless patches interspersed with forest stands.

But critics of the deal said some of the tracts the government was prepared to give up were ecologically invaluable. Fossil Creek, a 4.3 square mile (2,752 acre) tract of old growth forest, is believed to be one of the most ancient forest stands in Washington. Residents of the logging town of Randle objected to the loss of Watch Mountain, a 3.4 square mile old growth forest patch. The community, a neighbor to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest lying directly below Watch Mountain, feared that Plum Creek's logging practices not only would result in a landslide and destroy a local stream, but would result in the loss of the scenic beauty of their town.

At the end of August, five forest conservation groups filed an appeal of the I-90 Land Exchange, citing numerous violations of federal law, irreparable destruction of rare ecosystems, and potential harm to the local community of Randle. The groups requested that publicly owned parcels in the Green River Watershed and Gifford Pinchot National Forest, including Fossil Creek and Watch Mountain, be dropped from the exchange.

"We simply cannot support an exchange that sacrifices rare, low elevation old growth forest," said Dave Werntz, staff ecologist for the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. "Both parcels in the Gifford Pinchot contain trees that are over four centuries old - some of the oldest trees left in all of Southwest Washington. How could we ever put a monetary figure to the value of these lands?"

Randle residents were joined in opposition to the exchange by the Cascadia Defense Network, a loose knit group of activists who are sitting in trees at Watch Mountain until the Gifford Pinchot National Forest gets dropped from the exchange. The tree sitters have made an unusual alliance with the community of Randle, a former logging town, to see that the forest is not acquired by Plum Creek.

"Our hope is that Senator Murray will hear our message, save the last of this precious ancient forest, and protect the town of Randle," said Sarah Vekasi, a treesitter with the Cascadia Defense Network, and member of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force. "Until then, we'll be sitting watch over these lands to ensure they don't get destroyed."


Senator Slade Gorton, a Washington Republican and one of the authors of the I-90 Land Exchange (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Then last month, lawyers representing Plum Creek Timber filed court papers asking that the I-90 Land Exchange be quickly endorsed by the court. The company claimed that environmental opposition was causing costly delays. As opponents of the land swap would almost certainly sue to block the deal, Plum Creek wanted the court to preemptively rule on its legality.

"This is bizarre," said Janine Blaeloch, director of the Seattle based Western Land Exchange Project, which opposes the exchange. "Plum Creek is trying to portray itself as a victim when they have bullied, manipulated, and engineered every step of the proposed I-90 Land Exchange for the last three years."

Blaeloch called Plum Creek’s legal filing a "SLAPP suit," a strategic lawsuit against public participation - specifically designed to make an end run around the public’s right to protection under U.S. environmental laws.

The bad press generated by that action may have prompted Plum Creek’s willingness to renegotiate the land swap. With the removal of the Fossil Creek and Watch Mountain tracts, environmentalists will have less cause to complain about the deal, and it may be more likely to win funding in Congress.

The U.S. Forest Service still must approve the revised deal, and it must win passage by Congress. The land exchange is part of the Interior Department fiscal year 2000 budget bill, which President Bill Clinton has promised to veto over riders that the White House sees as anti-environmental. Clinton also wants the budget to include more money for land preservation.

Gorton plans to insert the reduced land exchange into the next version of the Interior budget, which will have to be voted on again by the House and Senate. Final approval of the budget is expected in the next two weeks.