Supporting wild spaces will lift peninsula area

April 3, 2011 

The Cascade Land Conservancy, a Seattle-based heavy hitter in the world of Western Washington land trusts, has quietly expanded its scope of interest from central Puget Sound to the Olympic Peninsula, with an eye directed at a more sustainable future around the U.S. Highway 101 loop from Aberdeen to Shelton.

On Wednesday at the Shelton Civic Center, the conservancy convened a small group of movers and shakers from the Olympic Peninsula to begin a conversation about what it will take to build more livable communities; grow a strong economy; and protect the region’s working farms, forests and open space from sprawling population growth that could double the peninsula’s population of 230,000 in the next 100 years.

Whew, now there’s a tall order.

But it’s the kind of challenge that defines the Cascade Land Conservancy: Making partners out of historic adversaries such as timber companies and environmental groups, helping figure out what common economic ground the far-flung peninsula towns can cultivate, and reducing the steady conversion of working forests and farms to other uses.

“I don’t want anyone to think we think that this is going to be easy,” land conservancy president Gene Duvernoy told the gathering of 50 peninsula community leaders. “But if we want to conserve the woods, we’d better build communities where people want to live.”

I couldn’t help but think of Duvernoy’s comments as I walked around downtown Shelton on Wednesday afternoon. In many ways, it looked much the same as it did when I was a young child, growing up in a three-bedroom house with a barn and 5 acres that my dad bought for $10,000 in 1947 near Mill Creek, two miles south of town.

Sure, there are new downtown buildings and businesses. Shelton has its own brew pub and several restaurants that crank out food as good as that in any big city.

But the Oakland Bay shoreline a few hundred yards from the city center remains off-limits to the public, home to Simpson Timber Co. mill operations that have dominated the urban waterfront since I can remember.

From downtown Shelton, you can smell the saltwater, but you can’t see it.

Over time, I expect that will change. Already, the Squaxin Island Tribe and Simpson have started collaborating on some habitat-restoration projects in Shelton Harbor that could pay dividends for fish, water quality and people.

In addition, public access to Oakland Bay at Eagle Point southeast of town is more than just a dream, ever since city residents voted last year to pay a property tax assessment for the newly formed Shelton Metropolitan Park District.

The city has its eyes on a 14-acre waterfront parcel owned by the Port of Shelton for passive recreation and as a launch site for kayaks and canoes, noted city parks and recreation director Mark Ziegler. Soon it should have the financial wherewithal to complete the real estate transaction and eventually develop the park.

Waterfront access was a high priority of the public in a recent survey by the parks district, Ziegler said.

“We’ve started having conversations with the city and about how to develop access to a working waterfront on the flanks of the Simpson operations,” said Sam Gibboney, the land conservancy’s Olympic Peninsula conservation director.

At the public forum, panelists were asked to envision what the Olympic Peninsula – its communities and its landscape – will look like in 100 years.

“The biggest risk is that sprawl will overwhelm the natural resource lands,” said Dave Nunes, president of Pope Resources, an Olympic Peninsula company that has both timberland management and real estate development arms, which isn’t that unusual for a timber company in the 21st century.

“Forestry will be practiced on a smaller footprint, but use of wood will be one of the economic glues to help this region stay together and succeed,” Nunes said.

He even predicted a timber revival in Grays Harbor County, a county with a 15 percent unemployment rate that has seen everything from salmon fishing at Westport to timber harvesting in Olympic National Forest steadily decline over the past 20 years.

In other words, the economic recession of the past two years is nothing new on the Olympic Peninsula.

One of the goals of the conservancy’s Olympic agenda is to preserve most of the existing private forestland in the face of population growth and development.

If you don’t think that will be challenging, consider this: Almost half of the roughly 1.8 million acres of working forests of the Olympic Peninsula are zoned for primary uses other than or in addition to growing trees.

Statewide, about 17 percent of the state’s working forests have been converted to other uses in the past 25 years.

Those are two reasons why land trusts; some timberland companies, including Shelton-based Green Diamond Resource Co.; and other partners support Senate Bill 5272 and its companion bill, House Bill 1421, which would create a community forest trust account that the state Department of Natural Resources and communities could use to purchase and manage state or private forest lands threatened by conversion.

Building more sustainable communities on the peninsula will help take pressure off the working farms and forests. In Shelton, a robust city parks system of trails and waterfront access will be one of those steps in the right direction.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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