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Family tree farmers try to shield land from development

Small foresters suggest a way to let them log more but still protect their land. But critics fear larger foresters could take advantage.

December 23, 2007|Gene Johnson | Associated Press

CENTRALIA, WASH. — Doug Stinson traces his love of trees to the 1940s, when, at 14, he asked his parents for permission to plant short-leaf pines on their cattle farm in the Missouri Ozarks.

Sixty years later, his sinewy hands and weathered skin betray a lifetime spent in the woods -- as a smokejumper, a logger and, finally, an owner of his family's 1,150-acre tree farm in southwest Washington.

A maze of environmental regulations governs which of the towering Douglas firs he can cut. His mail brings weekly overtures from developers willing to pay cash. It's easy to see why someone less committed to the trees might be tempted -- and why the conversion of private timberland to sprawling cul-de-sacs is one of the greatest threats facing the Northwest's salmon and other protected species.

It's a problem that Stinson, his son Steve, and a few other local foresters decided to do something about. They immersed themselves in the impossibly complex minutia of forestry policy: How close to a stream should you be able to log? How much shade is needed to keep the stream cool enough for fish? A decade later, they have a plan.

Nearly 400 pages long, it's designed to let small-time Lewis County timberland owners cut more trees while still protecting wildlife and, they hope, keeping their land forested for generations. It's the first time in the history of the Endangered Species Act that a group of private landowners has undertaken such an effort, federal officials say. The county has signed on, submitting the document for review by the federal agencies charged with enforcing the act.

But the approach is contentious: Some environmentalists worry that it could set a template for easing logging restrictions across the state.

"You watch all this land being developed around you, and you know you could go out and make a fortune in a heartbeat," Stinson, 74, said as he surveyed a stand of pencil-straight firs. "Most small family landowners don't want to do that."

Family-owned forestland covers an estimated 5,000 square miles, or 8% of Washington. That's a far cry from the swaths covered by state, federal and timber company land. But many of the family-owned forests are the front lines in the fight against sprawl: at low elevations between residential areas and larger tracts of forest.

In Lewis County, an estimated 2,200 family foresters own about 200 square miles of land, with an average size of about 55 acres, according to the Family Forest Foundation, an organization started by the Stinsons, local logger Tom Fox and others.

Those landowners are required to abide by the same logging restrictions as Weyerhaeuser and other timber companies, though the rules are more onerous on smaller parcels.

If a stream meanders through a tree farm of 50 or 100 acres, regulations requiring no-cut and partial-cut buffers totaling 170 feet on either side can take a huge chunk out of profits.

In the 1980s, Don Christensen bought 75 acres in Lewis County that had been subdivided into 5-acre lots. Christensen kept the property as a tree farm, but a stream that runs at barely a trickle in the summertime prevents him from logging one-quarter of it, he said.

That's the type of story that infuriates the Stinsons and Fox: Christensen and others, they say, are financially punished after doing the right thing by not developing their land.

Another example, they say: Small-time landowners who let trees grow big enough to provide habitat for spotted owls would be barred from logging on much or all their land if the threatened birds moved in.

Their plan would make several changes to the state's rules for the county's family foresters, primarily by substantially narrowing no-cut buffers along streams. It would also grant exemptions for incidental harm to species protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The foresters would agree to keep their land as working forests for 100 years; however, there is nothing to prevent them, or their descendants, from pulling out of the plan and selling.

They would grow their trees longer -- at least 50 years upland, and 70 years near streams -- before cutting them. Currently, there are no such time limits; it is generally considered economical to harvest after 40 years.

The foresters would be encouraged to leave buffers around nests or dens for dozens of upland species, such as the pileated woodpecker, that aren't otherwise protected.

Peter Goldman, an attorney with the Washington Forest Law Center in Seattle, said the approach is well intentioned but wrong-headed.

"The problem here is that forestry cannot compete with development. End of story," Goldman said. "When you have beautiful land along a river, the land is worth 20 times more developed. There's no scientific or policy support for the proposition that if you just lower the environmental protections it'll stay in forestland. We need a much bigger fix."

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