Lake Whatcom Reconveyance Postponed
by Wendy Harris
On Sept. 11, I attended the public hearing for the Lake Whatcom Reconveyance. The purpose of the reconveyance is to restore 8,700 acres, or 25 percent of the watershed, to old growth forest to protect the lake’s water quality. The majority of this land is classified by the County as critical areas, and is inappropriate for timber harvest due to steep slopes. The reconveyed land would become a public park under management of the County Parks Department, allowing opportunity for recreational activities compatible with water quality protection.
I expected a pro forma hearing to formalize the prior actions of County Council, who: 1) funded the almost $300,000 in preliminary deed and title work necessary for the reconveyance, 2) confirmed their support for the reconveyance in a formal letter to the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and 3) listened to overwhelming support from their constituents, who reflected a wide range of interests, during this five- or six-year process.
Instead, the efforts of the Tea Party, Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights and BIA to quickly mobilize eleventh-hour opposition to the reconveyance resulted in, surprisingly, a four-hour love fest for DNR. In fact, the opposition had so much love to share that enough was left over for the Washington Department of Ecology and even the Growth Management Act. Who knew that members of the Tea Party, CAPR and BIA were such fans of state government? Yet consistently the opposition argued for the merits of leaving 8,700 acres of largely unusable forested watershed land under state rather than local control.
The opposition bolstered its position with evidence that Conservation Northwest and the Whatcom Land Trust—the organizations that worked hard to make the reconveyance possible—communicated with the County Parks director (who himself was revealed to be a closeted park lover) in efforts to facilitate transfer of land from the DNR to the County. Moreover, after more than five years of communications, there were a lot of emails.
Whatcom Land Trust secured a funding source to replace Mt. Baker School District’s lost timber revenues, which had been an obstacle to moving forward with the reconveyance. Or as our Tea Party/CAPR friends explained, they gave money to the school district to buy support for the reconveyance. Clearly, this was blatant bribery. (Not to worry. Our Tea Party/CAPR friends are attempting to get the scoundrel who voted to accept the bribe money thrown off the school board.)
The significance of these events was not lost on astute Council Member Bill Knutzen, who posed a hypothetical question to Council members. What if members of the development community had special access to County staff that the public did not know about? Gosh, thank goodness this has not happened! We need to nip this thing in the bud. Is there a state agency that we could transfer the entirety of County operations to in an effort to prevent … uhmm, people from talking to County staff in pursuit of their public interest agenda, which is subject to County Council discussion and vote?
Concern for “public process” needs to extend to the members of the public who participated and provided input over a period of years, and were led to believe that the County Council was moving forward with the reconveyance. Yet not once was this even mentioned. Nor was the $300,000 that only should have been authorized if the Council intended to move forward with the reconveyance.
Once Council Members Crawford and Kershner, who both campaigned on a platform supporting improved Lake Whatcom water quality, saw political support for revisiting their prior position, they jumped at the bait, ignoring the irrational and uninformed basis of the eleventh-hour mobilized opposition. (Council Members Brenner and Knutzen have always opposed the reconveyance.) At the end of the public hearing, the Council voted to postpone a decision on the reconveyance to review the concerns raised by those opposed, (hey, maybe this really is an “Agenda 21” plot) and to review or draft a park budget/park use plan. It is unclear why the park planning issue had not been raised by the Council at some earlier point in the multi-year County funded process. The only thing that was clear is that it would result in delay.
The biggest problem Lake Whatcom faces is not land-use policies that promote greater watershed development, or forest practices that fail to comply with the standards of the Clean Water Act. It is a Council majority that refuses to accept the reality of land use impacts, even in the face of abundant scientific evidence. The most important act of voluntary watershed stewardship that the public could adopt is ensuring that a new Council majority is elected who are willing to seize every opportunity to protect water and air quality, natural resources and critical areas.