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City of Bellingham and Whatcom County Team Up for Major Land Purchase

June 2002

Watershed Protection

City of Bellingham and Whatcom County Team Up for Major Land Purchase

by Tom Pratum

Tom Pratum is a Lake Whatcom resident who is very concerned about the future of the lake.

On May 21, the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County Councils met to consider a major watershed land purchase. This is the property previously owned by Leila Olsen off Lake Louise Road near Sudden Valley (see map). Ms. Olsen died in 1994, and left no will and no apparent heirs. Eventually, three heirs did appear, and purchase of this 369- acre parcel came about in no small part due to negotiations by the Whatcom Land Trust with the heirs to Ms. Olsen’s estate.

The city and county will each put $429,500 toward the purchase of this parcel, with $409,000 ($819,000 total) going toward the actual purchase and $20,000 ($40,000 total) being held in trust by the Whatcom Land Trust for enforcement of easements and maintenance of the property. The city’s portion would come from its land acquisition fund and the county’s portion would come from conservation futures money.1

Conservation Easement Allows Limited Forestry

The Whatcom Land Trust will have a conservation easement over the property to “enhance and preserve the biological complexity and structural diversity of the forest, to conserve and improve wildlife habitat, and to provide public recreation opportunities that utilize and are consistent with protecting water quality and the natural attributes of the property.” This conservation easement allows non-motorized recreation, as well as very limited commercial forestry operations to occur on the site.

While the City Council appeared to be 100 percent behind the purchase, several County Councilmembers had reservations. One particular restriction on timber harvest present in the conservation easement seemed to raise their dander: “…no commercial timber harvesting until the forest canopy is closed with trees at least 150 years old....” This concept of driving the forest toward old-growth status was unacceptable to council-members Barbara Brenner, Ward Nelson, and Sam Crawford.

Councilmembers Brenner and Nelson also objected to taking property which was zoned forestry—rural (RF) and commercial (CF) forestry zoning—and purchasing it as if it were going to be converted from forestry to residential use. Apparently, another offer for the property had been made by Nielsen Brothers, which they assumed would keep the property operating as a working forest.

Wiggle Room for Age of Forest

Rand Jack of the Whatcom Land Trust indicated that there may be some wiggle room on their side regarding the age at which commercial timber harvest could occur, but that 60 years—an age suggested initially by Crawford—was too young to be acceptable. Councilmember Crawford eventually supported the purchase, feeling that the county should not stand in the way of the city in this endeavor.

In the end, both councils voted to proceed with the purchase, subject to working out the details of the conservation easement. The vote of the city was unanimous in support, while the county supported 5-2 with Nelson and Brenner opposed.

As can be seen from the map, this is a very significant purchase. It is hoped that this will not only “box in” the north side of Sudden Valley, thereby preventing the extension of services into forested areas, but that recreational opportunities on this property can be integrated with those on the DNR Lake Louise Natural Resource Conservation Area and Stimpson Nature Preserve.

1 Note that the city’s land acquisition fund is fueled by a surcharge on city water bills, and brings in on the order of $2 million per year. County conservation futures funds originate in an excise tax which is added to all land transfers in the county (6.2 cents per $1000). This fund brings in about $700,000 per year, and there is about $2.2 million in the account at this time. Note that while the city’s land acquisition fund is specifically for watershed land purchase, the county’s fund must cover all types of conservation land purchases.

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