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Timber-War Enemies Find Unity

Northwest: Saying it's better to lose most of the forest than all of it, conservationists ally with logging companies against development.


NORTH BEND, Wash. — Sometimes you have to cut the trees to save the forest.

Environmentalists who fought the timber wars of the 1980s and '90s have a tough time embracing that notion. But as suburban development spreads steadily over once-rural landscapes, some tree-cutters and tree-huggers are finding common ground, or at least a common enemy: suburbia.

Some environmentalists are forging alliances with the timber industry, taking the pragmatic view that responsible forestry beats strip malls.

The conservationists' biggest victory so far has been the promise that 100,000 forested acres in the Washington Cascades foothills--most within commuting distance of Seattle--will be preserved as forest and never developed.

A coalition of veterans from both sides of the timber wars announced their plan in January. They want to sell tax-free bonds to pay for the property, then sell timber from the land to pay off the bonds. If Congress approves their unprecedented financing method, land-conservation groups across the West and around the country are poised to copy it.

Big land deals like the Evergreen Forest Trust, as it's called, grab headlines and are undeniably important. But a quieter battle is being waged on small family forests.

People like Lee and Louis Kahn are on the front lines. They own a 45-acre tree farm near North Bend, not far from the 100,000-acre Evergreen Forest Trust site.

Family Holds Out

Like thousands of family foresters near urban areas and interstate corridors, they could sell out to developers for a big payday instead of relying on an uncertain, long-term crop. But they stick with it, even as the value of their land surpasses the value of the timber on it.

"It isn't a financial thing," explains Lee Kahn, 69, as she struggles to explain why she and her husband, Louis, 79, are determined to keep working their tree farm. They live about 45 minutes from Seattle, and their property value is assessed at more than $1 million. They make about $14,000 a year selling Christmas trees. Douglas firs they planted 20 years ago won't be ready to harvest for another 20 years.

"It's a good feeling inside both of us to look and see what we've done," Louis Kahn said.

On the ridge above them, million-dollar homes are for sale. At the nearby Uplands Reserve, three- to seven-acre lots sell for $300,000 and up.

"We're right in the center of what is turning into an area with big lots and big houses," Lee Kahn said. "We are really trying to be a working tree farm."

They hope their children will do the same, but it's a touchy subject.

"They know I don't want it divided. It's not a secret," Louis Kahn said.

"It's not an easy topic to talk about," Lee Kahn added.

Suburban growth, rising land values and declining timber prices have already cost Washington a lot of forested land.

According to the state Department of Natural Resources, every day 100 acres of forest in western Washington is converted to commercial, residential or industrial uses. The department, which owns 2.1 million acres of forested land, has converted some of it to more profitable uses--the Fred Meyer next to the Krispy Kreme in Issaquah leases land from the department, for instance. The department's goal is to preserve forest land wherever possible, spokesman Todd Myers said.

Timberland that used to be owned by big companies has been broken up and sold, repeatedly. In the western foothills of the Cascades, the land eventually gets too expensive for timber companies, and developers snap it up.

"When you can sell one acre in Washington state and buy 10 acres in Maine, some of the companies are doing that," said Doug McClelland, asset stewardship manager with the Department of Natural Resources. "It's not wrong; it's just the economics of forestry."

In the past, McClelland said, leaders thought zoning was the answer. But zoning can change with a simple county council vote. The real answer, he said, is changing the economic equation. State, county and federal programs buy private land for forestry and compensate family foresters for their unused development rights.

Good intentions aren't enough--conservation today takes cash. That's where the Evergreen Forest Trust comes in, with its plan to buy the $185-million property from timber giant Weyerhaeuser and pay it off by logging 80% of the land. The remaining 20% will be preserved permanently as forest land.

Many environmentalists were skeptical at first. The board of the Cascade Land Conservancy debated vigorously before joining the project. The group now holds the conservation easement on the property and will monitor the logging.

"We can have all kinds of discussions about what's the best forestry, as long as you have a forest. Once it's a shopping center or a parking lot, you don't have much to talk about anymore," said Charlie Raines, a longtime leader with the local Sierra Club and director of the Cascade Land Conservancy's Foothills Forest Conservation Program.

Although most environmental groups support the Evergreen Forest Trust, or at least are willing to give it a chance, not everyone approves.

Raines has been criticized--and in one case, hit in the face with a pie--for his willingness to deal with timber companies.

King County Councilman Larry Phillips, an Evergreen Forest Trust board member, said he has no doubt that if the 100,000-acre forest isn't protected, it will be developed.

"It will be sold for subdivisions and shopping malls. That's going to happen," Phillips said. "You're harvesting the forest to save it."

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