Cows versus condos -- Northwest style

by Lissa James

Like ranches elsewhere in the West, small tree farms in Washington encompass some of the best fish and wildlife habitat: lowland areas close to streams. An estimated 40,000 people statewide own small tree farms that make up half of the state’s 8 million acres of private forestland.

Yet these small-scale timber operators had little say in negotiating the Forests and Fish logging rules, says Kirk Hanson, of the Department of Natural Resources’ Small Forest Landowner Office, who owns a 40-acre tree farm himself. "The Forests and Fish rules were industry-negotiated," he says. "Small forest landowners were shoved to the side."

These landowners bear the brunt of the Fish and Forest rules, say forestry experts. On average, streamside buffers eat up 20 percent of the value of every timber sale, but small landowners lose the most, because they’re more likely to have land in valley bottoms crisscrossed with streams. And the plan’s rules are so complicated that most tree farmers have to hire professional foresters to fill out cutting applications.

The proposed plan could make life even harder, many small tree farmers argue, unless it contains strong guarantees that timber harvesting can continue. And what’s bad for tree farms may be bad for salmon, too. Small landowners are under increasing pressure to sell to developers or subdivide. According to the state Department of Natural Resources, western Washington loses 88 acres of family forests a day — or 50 square miles a year — to the kind of urban sprawl that’s swallowing Puget Sound.

It’s the Northwest’s version of the "cows versus condos" dilemma, in which ranchers, pushed to the brink by global markets and tight regulations, can net tremendous profits by selling their private land to developers.

The Forests and Fish rules offer small landowners some exemptions; they’re not required to inventory fish-blocking culverts, for example. But those exemptions make it more difficult for the federal government to track fish kills and gauge the effectiveness of the rules, says Chris Mendoza, a conservation biologist who works for both the timber industry and environmentalists: "It’s another blank spot that makes it difficult to quantify how much ‘take’ (killing) is actually going on."

The state’s easement programs help offset the costs of regulations for small forest landowners. But convincing landowners to sign up for easements can be difficult, especially in the face of regulatory uncertainty, according to Peter Overton, whose family has owned a tree farm in southern Puget Sound since 1922. Speaking at a recent meeting of the Washington Farm Forestry Association, an advocacy group for small forest landowners, Overton said that tree farmers don’t want to run the risk of being "tied up in forestry (and) then regulated out of business."

 

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