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Know the West

Tree-sitters and timber company celebrate

  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 Forest.

A coalition of environmental groups and residents of the small town of Randle formed the Gifford Pinchot Task Force to fight the deal.

Anticipating lawsuits from the group, Plum Creek filed a suit in mid-October, asking a federal judge to endorse the legality of the exchange.

"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.

The 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 compromise.

"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 magnitude.

"I don't think anybody on either side is planning anything else," says Plum Creek's Yeager. "Everyone is still exhausted from this settlement."

*Ali Macalady