How much are 30,000 acres of forest worth? Washington conservation groups and the state's Department of Natural Resources are about to find out. On April 8, the two sides settled a trio of lawsuits over the Loomis State Forest in north-central Washington by agreeing to let the conservation groups pay to remove a chunk of the forest's roadless lands from the state timber program.


All they need now is money.


Conservation groups have already raised $95,000 to make a down payment on the deal, but the total tab will probably be close to $25 million, due July 1, 1999, according to Mitch Friedman of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. It will likely be the most expensive private forest protection effort Washington has ever seen.


Friedman's group, along with the Friends of Loomis Forest and the Washington Environmental Council, had filed lawsuits charging that the state's management plan for the forest violated state water quality standards and the Endangered Species Act. The April settlement suspends those lawsuits.


If the groups come up with the money, the state will still own the trees, but the forest will probably become a public reserve open to low-impact recreation, says Commissioner of Public Lands Jennifer Belcher.


The Loomis is part of a 1.8 million-acre endowment of state lands managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources to benefit the state's school construction fund. Money raised by the conservationists will reimburse the construction fund for the value of the land as well as three timber sales that had been planned for the roadless areas.


The state will probably use proceeds from the settlement to buy more productive timberland or commercial properties for the school trust fund, says Belcher. "We've always had a hard time making much money out of the Loomis," she says.


The state has spent $300 million over the last decade to fund similar land exchanges, increasing the school trust fund's income by as much as $5 million a year while preserving unproductive or scientifically important lands.





"There's nothing unprecedented in what we're doing," says Mitch Friedman. "The mechanism is there. What's unusual is that private dollars have come into the mix."


*Chris Carrel