Sarah Vekasi was prepared to spend the winter perched in an old Douglas fir tree near the town of Randle, Wash., in order to stop the trade of old-growth forest out of public ownership. Thanks to a recent reworking of a complicated land swap, it looks like she'll stay warm, dry and on the ground. After five days of negotiations, Plum Creek Timber Co., the U.S. Forest Service and eight Washington environmental groups agreed on Nov. 4 to a scaled-down swap that keeps old growth in public hands.
The thorny exchange has been in the works
for over three years, and was controversial from the start (HCN,
3/29/99). Seattle-based environmental groups, including the Cascade
chapter of the Sierra Club and the Alpine Lakes Protection Society,
supported the deal because it would have simplified land ownership
along the Cascade divide. But even though 60,000 acres of Plum
Creek land were slated for transfer to the public, 17,000 acres of
public forest from five Washington national forests would have gone
to the timber company. Those acres included Watch Mountain and
Fossil Creek, some of the only remaining old-growth forest in
western Washington's Gifford Pinchot National
A coalition of environmental groups and
residents of the small town of Randle formed the Gifford Pinchot
Task Force to fight the deal.
lawsuits from the group, Plum Creek filed a suit in mid-October,
asking a federal judge to endorse the legality of the
"The idea of filing the suit was to get
to the issues sooner rather than later," says Mike Yeager of Plum
Creek. The ploy did just that: The final agreement on the deal was
reached in the suit's settlement talks.
scaled-back deal swaps 11,500 acres of public forest for 31,900
Plum Creek acres. Plum Creek gave the Forest Service an option to
purchase much of the land that was originally part of the exchange,
and if it can come up with the funds in time, the agency can also
buy back some of the land Plum Creek will receive in the deal. In
return, environmentalists agreed not to challenge Plum Creek's
right to log the exchange lands.
Peter Nelson of
the Pacific Crest Biodiversity Project says members of the Gifford
Pinchot group are generally happy with the
"We had to swallow the bullet on a
number of things," he says. "But saving Watch Mountain and Fossil
Creek took precedence."
In the meantime, no one
in Washington is considering another exchange of the same
"I don't think anybody on either side
is planning anything else," says Plum Creek's Yeager. "Everyone is
still exhausted from this settlement."