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Sunday, January 14, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Views differ: Aesthetics a weapon in clear-cut wars

Seattle Times staff reporter

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WILKESON, Pierce County - Battles to preserve the region's signature views - from Seattle's new stadium or sky bridges that shut out the sun - are moving to the forests.

Heavy logging is the offender. And a state law, rarely applied, is the newest weapon in the decades-old timber wars. Instead of the usual thicket of scientific justifications to limit logging, environmentalists are using a layman's argument:

Clear-cuts, thunders lawyer Peter Goldman, are ugly.

Under a 1974 law, the state Department of Natural Resources is supposed to protect recreation and scenic beauty when considering timber sales, whether on private or public land. But the state Forest Practices Board, with few exceptions, has never issued rules implementing the requirement. Goldman, an attorney with the Washington Forest Law Center, tried last year to get the board to protect scenic views from hiking trails and other spots near dozens of potential sales around the region. The effort failed 8-3 in a vote by the Forest Practices Board in May.

When all else fails, environmentalists have turned to the courts to limit logging, demanding protections for the spotted owl, salmon and other threatened species.

Now Goldman says he'll turn to the courts this spring to protect threatened scenery. His poster child is a 34-acre cut planned by Plum Creek Timber at the northwest entrance to Mount Rainier National Park.

Eleven percent of the park's 1.76 million visitors in 1999 went through the Carbon River entrance. People pay money to come and see the beauty of the state, not clear-cuts, Goldman says.

The state Forest Practices Appeals Board is expected to take up Friday a request for an injunction to block the so-called "Doggone Parcel" timber sale. Goldman filed it on behalf of two Wilkeson residents and The Mountaineers, a hiking and outdoor-conservation group.

Goldman says they're not trying to stop logging, they just want it regulated to save scenic views.

Officials for Plum Creek say the company appreciates the importance of those views and routinely uses voluntary practices known as "aesthetic forestry" - logging methods that reduce the visual harshness of cuts.

Chain of cuts

The proposed Doggone timber sale is no forest primeval. Rather it's a stand of second-growth Douglas fir. Harvesting it would add one more clear-cut in a chain of them across the Cascade foothills.

"But you have to start somewhere. Past outrages are not justification for new ones," Goldman said.

Plum Creek has volunteered to create an aesthetic plan for the Doggone cut to soften its visual effect, leaving valuable timber standing to do so. But that doesn't persuade the cut's opponents.

Mardel Chowen of Wilkeson, Pierce County, calls the patches and stands of trees left by Plum Creek's aesthetic forestry "spots on a Dalmatian."

"This is the kind of greed that sees no faces," said Chowen, who is seeking the injunction with Joan Miller, another town resident. The fight against the Doggone timber sale is not popular in Wilkeson, where more than a half-dozen logging trucks rumble through town in an hour and where the Town Hall is surrounded by a fence with a saw-blade motif.

Town Councilman Dale Perry, 52, dismisses Chowen and Miller with a chop of his hand.

"They will tell you Plum Creek is a raper and a savager of the land. What you'll find, though, is they are the best neighbor we could have."

Chowen is a part of the town's timber culture: Her father was a logger, her brothers too. But the Doggone timber sale, she said, is a step too far.

"This little piece by the park is kind of the last straw," she said.

If the injunction fails, Plum Creek intends to cut the Doggone parcel immediately, finishing within two months. The sale includes some of the company's most productive forestland.

Low elevation, heavy rainfall and good soil grows trees in the Carbon River Valley fast enough to cut on a 50-year rotation. The Doggone cut is some of the last Plum Creek has planned in the Carbon River corridor for decades, except by helicopter in higher elevation.

"There's not a lot left," said David Crooker, Plum Creek general manager for the Cascades region. And that's intentional: "The reason timber companies are in business is to make money for their shareholders. That's the bottom line." .

Crooker is no stranger to the scenery wars. The company owns thousands of acres of timberland near heavily traveled Puget Sound highways and population centers. Much of their land in the Cascade region is located on hillsides, which makes it harder to screen from view.

But as Crooker and timber manager Gary Johnson tour the cut lands that outrage Chowen and Miller, they see a different landscape. "This is industrial forestland. You should expect to see some cutting here," Johnson said from a hillside that commands a view of the approach to the park.

"Sure, you can see we've been there, but when I look at this, I don't see devastation."

The company has voluntarily been taking aesthetics into account for years, Crooker said. Twenty years ago, the company would cut hundreds of acres from one side to the other. Today, cuts are much smaller, averaging about 65 to 70 acres, he said.

On a parcel where the company employs aesthetic forestry practices, it may leave as many as 35 percent of the trees standing. On sensitive parcels near a town or a popular recreation spot, the company might log by helicopter and leave many trees standing.

The results in the Carbon River corridor leading to the park are uneven. Some lands Crooker shows off with pride.

He took personal care to protect views of Plum Creek timberland seen from a historic bridge on the way to the park. The view appears largely intact; tall trees screen the cut behind.

Another clear-cut visible from inside the park shows use of contours of the land and tall trees to hide the cut.

A cut visible from downtown Wilkeson was also sculpted so trees out of sight were more heavily cut. About half of the trees on the parcel will be left standing, Crooker said.

Other cuts in the area offer the classic Northwest visual disaster. A nearly bald zone comes into view just feet from the main entrance to the park.

"That's in your face; we're not happy about that one, either," Crooker says.

Industrial toll

The park's master plan and environmental impact statement for a proposed expansion notes the toll industrial forestry has taken on the landscape.

"Timber clear-cutting practices on nearby private and U.S. Forest Service lands have affected views from the park, particularly on the west and north sides of the park," the plan states.

"The park's boundary is clearly visible from (outer) space due to timber harvesting. In addition, timber harvests may be affecting park wildlife populations, including threatened and endangered species."

Jon Jarvis, superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park, hopes timber companies can learn from mistakes, like the shocker of a clear-cut right at the park boundary.

The National Park Service works with Plum Creek and other timber companies to help ensure that views are considered. Properly managed, industrial forests are better looking than development, Jarvis said.

He takes no issue with the Doggone cut; the park may seek to acquire part of the land in a proposed expansion. If it's cut, the land will be cheaper, and it will recover in the long run, Jarvis said.

Goldman insists only rules will provide statewide protection for views, while also taking into account the cumulative effects of clear-cuts across a landscape.

Timber companies have long fought the imposition of a state rule to protect views, fearing a slippery slope toward more and more regulation.

"But we are not trying to shut them down," Goldman said. "What we are saying is you have a duty to inventory those very important places and use aesthetic forestry there.

"It's what being a good neighbor is about."

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