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Thursday, January 17, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Huge deal may save forest from sprawl

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Map: The Evergreen Forest at Snoqualmie
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A new, nonprofit land trust has struck a tentative deal to buy Weyerhaeuser's 100,000-acre Snoqualmie Tree Farm in the Cascade foothills, which would preclude any possibility of suburban development.

The agreement, announced yesterday, may be the biggest nongovernment land-conservation initiative in the state's history. "I can't think of one that's larger," said veteran Sierra Club leader Charlie Raines.

The tree farm is nearly twice as large as the city of Seattle.

Its prospective buyer, the Evergreen Forest Trust, would pay Weyerhaeuser $185 million. But the deal hinges on government approval of a financing tool that never has been tried.

The trust said it would continue to manage most of the land as a working forest. But it said logging would be prohibited or strictly limited on about 20 percent of the property to protect streams, wetlands and wildlife, and overall timber harvest is expected to drop.

Weyerhaeuser already has halted logging on the forest, and yesterday the company laid off 60 workers.

Trust leaders, environmentalists and elected officials said the forest, to be called the Evergreen Forest at Snoqualmie, would serve as a wall against sprawl. "Its western edge is literally the eastern edge of developed King County," said Seattle attorney Gerry Johnson, the trust's president.

King County has zoned the land for forestry and allows no new lots smaller than 80 acres. But supporters of the deal said development pressure will only increase — there's already a market for 80-acre estates — and acquisition is the only sure way to prevent it.

"Zoning isn't permanent," said Metropolitan King County Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, a member of the new trust's board.

The transaction is contingent on the trust obtaining financing, which it plans to get by selling tax-exempt revenue bonds backed by logging proceeds. That, in turn, is contingent on Internal Revenue Service approval of the novel approach.

Johnson said the trust plans to request a ruling from the IRS next week. In addition, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, have introduced legislation to amend the tax code to explicitly authorize such financing.

The bill already has cleared the Senate.

If the financing mechanism works here, Johnson said, it could provide a new model for forest protection nationwide.

Weyerhaeuser's ownership of parts of the Snoqualmie Tree Farm dates to 1900. Richard Hanson, the company's senior vice president of timberlands, called it "some of the best tree-growing land in the Northwest."

But company spokesman Frank Mendizabal said development pressures and environmental regulations, including the Endangered Species Act, made it increasingly difficult for Weyerhaeuser to manage the land as a commercial forest. Chinook salmon, a threatened species, spawn in the forest's streams.

If the deal goes through, here's how the land would be managed:

Subdivisions and other development would be prohibited on all 100,000 acres through a conservation easement. Management of about 20,000 acres would be turned over to the Cascade Land Conservancy, a Seattle-based land-conservation group that helped form the new trust.

Additional restrictions would apply on those lands. Land Conservancy President Gene Duvernoy, who also serves on the trust's board, said logging on 10,000 acres he called "the most critical ecological lands" would be prohibited unless deemed environmentally beneficial. Logging also would be limited on lands visible from the Snoqualmie Valley.

Another 10,000 acres along streams would be protected in buffers that would be both wider and more restrictive than state logging regulations require, Duvernoy said.

The remainder of the forest would be managed for timber production by the Campbell Group, a Portland-based timberland company that already controls 500,000 acres in Western Washington.

Campbell President Stan Renecker said less timber probably will be harvested than under Weyerhaeuser's ownership, because more land is off-limits and because the trust would need enough revenue only to pay its expenses and bondholders, not to make a profit.

Weyerhaeuser would retain ownership of about 5,000 acres, most of it containing potential gravel resources. But Duvernoy said Evergreen would hold the timber rights. And Mendizabal said Weyerhaeuser has no plans to mine the gravel soon.

The deal has been in the works for years. Duvernoy said a San Francisco-based financial- and forest-services firm first approached him with the idea of using tax-exempt revenue bonds to protect forests in 1995.

In 2000, over Weyerhaeuser's objections, King County Executive Ron Sims proposed additional restrictions on creating new lots in forestry zones. Sims unexpectedly withdrew that proposal a year ago but wouldn't say why.

His spokeswoman, Elaine Kraft, said yesterday that Sims' move was a show of good faith to Weyerhaeuser as the Snoqualmie negotiations heated up.

Some environmentalists hailed the proposal yesterday. "It sounds very visionary," said Kurt Beardslee of Washington Trout, a Duvall-based fish-protection organization.

The 60 Weyerhaeuser workers who lost their jobs as a result of the deal will receive pay and benefits for 60 days and help finding new jobs, Mendizabal said. Renecker of the Campbell Group said his firm probably would add employees to manage the forest.

Eric Pryne can be reached at 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com.

A map showing Weyerhaeusers Snoqualmie Tree Farm identified several properties as gravel mines. The company is retaining most of the sites because they contain gravel deposits but says it has no plans to develop them for years, if ever. Weyerhaeuser has signed an agreement to sell the rest of the tree farm to the new, nonprofit Evergreen Forest Trust.

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