For sale: The West

  It’s a little disconcerting to look at the ads in the local newspaper these days. I’m bound to recognize the mug of someone I know who has just cast in his or her lot with Re/Max, Coldwell Banker or another of the multitude of agencies now playing the West’s biggest gambling game: Real Estate Roulette.

He or she will be cheerfully touting the "classic Western charm" of a bungalow that I know for a fact has a rotting foundation and floors so crooked you get dizzy walking across them. Or they’ll extol the possibilities for growing an orchard or vineyard on a beat-up piece of pasture that barely manages to sustain a few cows. The asking price of a house today is bound to make your head spin — and if there’s land attached to the house, your head will spin even faster.

That the buying, selling and development of real estate has become the biggest game in town is not surprising. Western lands have always been magnets for speculators, even before the days of the 1862 Homestead Act. What makes today’s land rush different is the almost inconceivable amount of land in play.

In recent years, High Country News has reported on the aging owners of some of the West’s most beautiful ranchlands, who are selling out to wealthy baby boomers and riding off into the sunset. Now, that trend has spread to the less spectacular low-elevation valleys and plains just within sight of the mountains. And as Jane Braxton Little describes in this issue — the first in a series on the real estate economy — it’s reached the private timberlands of the Pacific Northwest.

Tens of millions of acres of Western timberlands formerly held by a handful of timber companies are suddenly up for sale to the highest bidder. The great forests of the Northwest have become just another item in investment portfolios — an asset to be bought, developed and swiftly sold for a handsome yearly return. Logging is still part of the picture, but now it’s simply a short-term strategy to make some money while clearing the way for the throngs of developers’ bulldozers.

It all sounds depressing, and yet there’s hope to be found. It lies in the growing realization of conservation-minded folks that, they, too, can get in on the game; now is their chance to buy up some of these forests. Ecotrust, out of Portland, Ore., recently attracted enough capital to purchase 1,100 acres in Washington’s Olympic Mountains, where it’s begun to harvest timber at a slow and ecologically sustainable rate. The return for investors was around 5 percent last year, according to director Spencer Beebe — below the 8 to 10 percent that most timber investment companies promise, but still respectable. Plus, investors get the satisfaction of knowing they’re not pillaging the planet for short-term gain.

If more ideas like this gain a foothold, the Pacific Northwest just might hold on to some of its forests — forests that provide clean water, healthy habitat and jobs that allow people to work the land instead of hawking it in the local paper.