CLE ELUM — When the October clouds lift above the Teanaway River, the view stretches across miles of forest to fresh snow on Mount Stuart.
This 50,000-acre forest, sandwiched between farmland and the edge of the Wenatchee National Forest, is now the state’s first community forest — a concept intended to protect forests while giving local groups a stronger say in how the land will be managed.
If what happens here is successful, it could be a template for more such projects across the state.
“We will have the opportunity to be at the table, so there will be no doubt that the county and the local citizens’ voices will be made loud and clear,” said Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell, a conservative Republican who generally holds deep skepticism regarding how state and federal governments have managed lands in his county.
Jewell recently found himself amid strange bed-fellows celebrating the state’s purchase of the forest. He and unlikely allies, including environmentalists, irrigators, other county commissioners and Yakama Nation scientists, worked together on the Yakima River basin water management plan, which included purchase of the property. While some legislators questioned the $97 million purchase as an earmark, the unusual mix of proponents garnered bipartisan support and pushed the project to passage.
Now that the state has bought the land, the community forest concept needs to move from paper to practice.
The idea was created in 2011 by state lawmakers concerned that Washington’s privately owned forests are increasingly giving way to development. About 12 percent of Eastern Washington’s forests underwent some form of development between 1980 and 2002, a trend that continues as population grows and timberland value declines.
The new community forest encompasses a large part of the Teanaway River watershed — prized from a fish recovery perspective because it’s the largest undammed river in the upper Yakima Basin.
The land purchase is “a really big deal because it’s such valuable habitat and it was under threat of sale and development,” said Michael Garrity, with the conservation group American Rivers. “This could be a great steelhead stream, but restoration projects were held off because of uncertainty about the future.”
The landowner, American Forest Holdings, was looking to subdivide and sell the forest. Neighbors and conservationists worried it would become another development of ranchettes and second homes, along with lots of traffic, water withdrawals and habitat degradation.
For years, private owners had managed the land for timber and grazing. Even today, cattle wander through a mix of young, skinny pines and big, old Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs.
Forests provide communities with economic and environmental benefits, including jobs, recreation, natural flood control, clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, Garrity said.
The challenge will be managing the forest for the goals of the watershed plan and the community forest program at the same time.
It will be a complex process, said Peter Dykstra, a lawyer who works with the Wilderness Society, which has thrown its backing behind the basin water plan, a complex plan that includes building more water storage to protect the region’s farmers from drought and protect the stream flow and habitat that salmon need.
For example, the community forest framework calls for protecting forests by using revenue generated by existing natural resources, such as timber or grasses for grazing, to pay for ongoing needs, including forest management and road maintenance, said Andrew Hayes, who manages the program for the state Department of Natural Resources.
But, because of both the forest restoration work needed and the habitat conservation goals, the Teanaway will be exempt from revenue requirements for at least the next decade. Restoring forest health is aimed at reversing the effects of decades of logging and fire prevention that have led to large amounts of fire-prone underbrush.
Hayes said that once a community forest advisory group is formed, its job will be sorting out priorities and making management plans.
Exactly what that advisory group will look like remains a work in progress, but Jewell calls it an exciting opportunity for his constituents to shape the plans from the ground up.
Representatives from local groups, including cattle ranchers, snowmobilers, hunters, hikers and bird watchers, will be invited to take a seat at the table, along with county officials and state scientists. They need to pass a plan by summer 2015.
The advisory group will provide guidance to DNR and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which will manage the land under a first-of-its-kind partnership. With foresters and fish biologists working together, the hope is they’ll be able to address big picture goals from salmon habitat restoration to timber management and wildfire risk reduction, said Wildlife Department representative Jeff Tayer.
The collaborative decision-making process will undoubtedly be time consuming and expensive, but Peter Goldmark, head of the Washington Commission of Public Lands, expects the end result to be worthwhile.
“Hopefully the public will appreciate the fact that it’s a new way for agencies to work together and with the community,” Goldmark said.
Jewell said initially the county had some reservations about the state purchasing the land, but when the Legislature designated the forest, it overcame all of his objections, at least in part because the county won’t lose property taxes.
The state agreed to provide funding to the county in lieu of taxes and required that it remain a working forest with recreational access, even providing funding to help the county cover the cost of increased emergency services and road maintenance for the Teanaway area.
The Teanaway will be in “transitional” management until 2025, when, if the goals of the basin’s water plan have not been met, the state can sell the property or move it into commercial timber harvest. If the goals are met, the land will remain a community forest and a permanent plan will go into effect that could put the revenue requirements back in place.
Managing a working forest for conservation goals at the same time will be a new challenge, but a welcome one, Tayer said. The current grazing allotments will remain and Jewell said they plan to find other revenue sources, such as woody biomass harvest and eventually timber again.
“We’re just at the beginning of this thing,” Jewell said. “The long-range plan here, how’s it’s going to work, is up to us. We’ve got to roll up our sleeves and figure it out.”