Washington Land Swap Finalized; Old Growth Forest Saved

By Cat Lazaroff

SEATTLE, Washington, January 6, 2000 (ENS) - The deeds have been exchanged - after years of nail biting negotiations, the I-90 land exchange has been completed. The controversial land swap in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state preserves vast swaths of forest, including some environmentally crucial parcels, while giving thousands of acres of valuable timber lands to a logging company.

old growth

Old growth forest (Two photos courtesy Sustainable Ecosystems Institute)
On December 29, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Plum Creek Timber Co. exchanged deeds, completing the complex transaction. About 31,000 acres of Plum Creek land was transferred to the USFS, and about 12,000 acres of national forest land and $4.3 million went to Plum Creek.

"This agreement does a great job of protecting forests in the Cascades," said Charlie Raines, director of the Sierra Club's Cascade Checkerboard Project. "The parties found common ground in protecting roadless areas, ancient forest, and salmon-bearing streams."

The so-called I-90 Land Exchange, named because much of it borders Interstate 90 in Washington, was passed by Congress in 1998. The original deal, sponsored by U.S. Senators Patty Murray, a Democrat, and Slade Gorton, a Republican, both of Washington state, would have traded 54,000 acres of forest land owned by international timber company Plum Creek to the USFS in exchange for almost 17,000 acres of publicly-owned land, including 5,554 acres from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

The land swap was designed to erase the 1800s era checkerboard pattern of public and private lands created when alternating sections of land were given to railroads as payment for creating new routes. The checkerboard pattern made it difficult for both the USFS and Plum Creek, which owned much of the former railroad lands, to manage individual parcels.

murrelet

Marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus)
But the land swap was delayed when endangered marbled murrelets were found in sections of the Green River Watershed slated to go to Plum Creek. Marbled murrelets are sea-going birds that nest only in old growth forests.

Last August, five forest conservation groups filed an appeal of the I-90 Land Exchange, citing numerous violations of federal law, irreparable destruction of rare ecosystems, and potential harm to the local community of Randle. The groups requested that publicly owned parcels in the Green River Watershed and Gifford Pinchot National Forest, including Fossil Creek and Watch Mountain, be dropped from the exchange.

In October, lawyers representing Plum Creek filed court papers asking that the I-90 Land Exchange be quickly endorsed by the court. The company claimed that environmental opposition was causing costly delays. As opponents of the land swap would almost certainly sue to block the deal, Plum Creek wanted the court to preemptively rule on its legality.

A revised package, finalized in November, was developed in a settlement agreement between Plum Creek and eight environmental organizations. It protects the most significant ecological lands, including murrelet habitat in the Green River, the slopes of Watch Moutain, key parts of Fossil Creek and substantial portions of the I-90 roadless areas, such as Teanaway, Manastash and Kachess, and rivers such as the Cle Elum.

cooper lake

Cooper Lake is among the lands the USFS could still acquire (Photo courtesy Plum Creek)
The trade provides a net increase of about 20,000 acres of roadless land and 8,000 acres of ancient forest in public ownership.

"No land trade has inspired more hands-on citizen involvement than the I-90 Land Exchange," noted Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Land Exchange Project. "The positive changes in this land trade are a tribute to the work of people who understand the importance of our public land."

Four roadless, old growth forested valleys near the Alpine Lakes Wilderness will be preserved: Scatter Creek, Silver Creek, Domerie Creek, and the West Fork Teanaway River. These four valleys represented the largest remaining areas of privately owned ancient forests in Washington state.

As part of the settlement, the USFS has three years to purchase Plum Creek lands that dropped from the trade. These include roadless lands, ancient forest and significant lands along the Yakima, Cle Elum and Cooper Rivers. Conservation groups have already begun work to obtain the funds to acquire those lands, as well as other forest lands in the Cascades, including acres along the Pacific Crest Trail, Skykomish Valley and Carbon River.

"This is a greatly improved land exchange, protecting more old growth from the Alpine Lakes to Mt. St. Helens," said Rick McGuire, president of the Alpine Lakes Protection Society. "Just as important, this agreement insures many special benefits, such as donations of land by Plum Creek, special protections in the Green River Watershed, and study of potential wilderness status near the Alpine Lakes."

alpine lakes

Part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (Photo courtesy USFS)
As part of the swap, Plum Creek has donated a 320 acre parcel at Twin Lakes, a third of which will be added to Alpine Lakes Wilderness early next year. The deal also creates a 15,000 acre wilderness study area adjacent to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

The legislation passed by Congress to fund the land swap also established the Kelly Butte Special Management Area, a 5,500 acre roadless area in the Green River watershed. No logging, road building, mining or off road vehicles will be allowed in the area, half of which was obtained from Plum Creek in the swap.

The lands acquired from Plum Creek in the upper Cle Elum valley will be off limits to mining claims under the settlement, though other newly acquired USFS lands could theoretically be mined.

"This agreement is tremendous news for all the people of Washington state," said Senator Gorton. "We've preserved both the special places of the central Cascades and the places special to the citizens of East Lewis County."

deer creek

Near Deer Creek on the South Fork Stillaguamish River, in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (Photo courtesy USFS)
Plum Creek stands to make millions by logging the tracts it has acquired, which include land from the Wenatchee, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Gifford Pinchot national forests. But the land it has traded away will remain untouched, providing habitat for murrelets and other wildlife of the Pacific Northwest.

"This has been a long and complicated process, and we congratulate all of the individuals and organizations that have made it possible," said Plum Creek executive vice president Bill Brown in announcing the settlement last November. "For 140 years, Plum Creek has been the steward of some truly stunning natural creations. We have taken good care of them, and today's agreement is the best way to put them into public ownership."