A Legacy of Trees: Land&People

From a snowy logging road above Interstate 90, an asphalt ribbon that connects Seattle to the summit of the Washington Cascades, the toll of runaway suburban growth is plain to see.

Rows of trophy houses sprout on bulldozed land where Douglas fir forests stood a year ago. Huge new subdivisions are in the works: 3,250 units near Issaquah; 2,500 coming soon on land recently annexed to the small town of Snoqualmie.

Yet from this spot, the view to the west on a clear day also encompasses a band of forest green stretching nearly all the way to the high-rise buildings of downtown Seattle. This greenway, a patchwork of county, state, federal, and private land, will never disappear beneath the pavement that is gobbling up so much of western Washington. It will grow trees forever.

Washington's Mountains to Sound Greenway is a tribute to the commitment and political skills of a few people who saw the face of the future back in 1990 and rejected it. They determined to confront suburban sprawl directly by acquiring forested land and taking it out of development, either by buying the land outright or by purchasing the development rights that were feeding uncontrolled land speculation. King County, where most of the greenway is located, is expected to gain 300,000 residents over the next decade.

The success of the greenway also is a tribute to a little-known, seven-year-old federal program called Forest Legacy, which contributed leverage and money to protect more than a thousand acres strategically located between Tiger Mountain State Forest and the Rattlesnake Mountain Scenic Area. "We are twenty-five miles from downtown Seattle in the midst of some of the most productive timberland in the world," says Ken Konigsmark of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. "Lots of people would like to develop here."

A Powerful Tool for Managing Sprawl


When rural land values escalated in the 1980s, lands traditionally used to grow trees began to sprout vacation homes and new suburbs. From New England to southern California, private forestland and open space in general are now under siege from suburban sprawl and commercial recreational development. "Approximately 25 percent of forestland in our region has changed hands in the past fifteen years," says Andrea Colnes of the Northern Forest Alliance. "Each time it happens, someone has to borrow and incur debt, so lands are put on the market and sold to the highest bidder. In the short term, it is more valuable for development than for timber."

The Forest Legacy Program was created as part of the 1990 Farm Bill to help stem the loss of productive private forestland nationwide. A leader in the effort was Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), then chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Leahy was moved by concern for the Northern Forest, 26 million acres of largely undeveloped forested land in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York.

Administered by the U.S. Forest Service, Forest Legacy provides a mechanism and a small pot of federal money–$4 million in fiscal 1998–for acquiring forested land and keeping it in forest use. With the help of Forest Legacy, lands have been protected in New York's Taconic Mountains, beside a remote New Hampshire lake, in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, along the scenic Rangeley Lakes of Maine, and in historic woods on the outskirts of Boston, as well as in Washington's Mountains to Sound Greenway. So far the program has helped protect 60,000 acres in eight states, either through the purchase of conservation easements that preclude development or by purchase of the land itself.

Conservationists see Forest Legacy as a valuable tool in the land conservation toolbox. "It's a source of funds for landowners who are not in a position to donate conservation easements, who do not have the financial wherewithal or the corporate philosophy to donate development rights," notes Charles Niebling of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which pioneered the idea of conservation easements on New Hampshire forestlands.

The program is also attractive to people interested in preserving private timberlands as working forests. "You can grow trees but you can't grow land," says Seattle lawyer Jim Ellis, president of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. "We can't see locking up fiber in these forests when we have a share of the best tree-growing land in the world."

Can Forest Legacy Survive and Thrive?


Few question the need for a program like Forest Legacy. But the future of this fledgling program is in doubt. For next year the Clinton administration has requested only $6 million for the program. Far more will be needed if the program is to achieve its goals. Potential Forest Legacy projects totaling $83 million await funding. So far, fifteen states are eligible to participate in the program, and two more are in the process of applying. Supporters worry that the program's minuscule budget, and its tenuous grip on survival, may discourage states from seeking Forest Legacy's help. "We would like to see $50 million in this program, which is a big jump, but not a lot when you compare it with other programs," says Helen Hooper, public policy director of the Land Trust Alliance, an umbrella group of more than 700 land trusts nationwide.

The Northeast region alone has identified almost 50 high-priority tracts valued at more than $38 million that qualify for protection under the program, but fewer than twenty projects will likely be funded this year. Utah has a $3 million list of forested tracts threatened by development, primarily in the fast-growing winter recreation corridor east of Salt Lake City. But because of intense competition for funds, Utah will be able to fund only one project this year.

California has identified five fast-growing counties–Mendocino and Sonoma in the north, Santa Cruz on the central coast, and Riverside and San Diego in the south–where development pressures are intense and public support for acquisition of private forestland is strong. "Within the five counties, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland that would qualify, from pine and juniper to towering redwoods," says Connie Best of the Pacific Forest Trust, which holds protective easements on forestlands. But California received only $50,000 in fiscal 1997.

"It's fair to say we have been disappointed with the level of funding," admits Suzanne Fleek, a spokeswoman for Senator Leahy. "If you talk to state foresters, they will tell you that if the program isn't funded to at least $5 million nationally, the states won't have an incentive to participate. It's really just hanging on by its fingernails."

At Stake in Washington


Complicating the situation is the fact that delay or uncertainty in securing funding can kill a project. "When it comes to acquiring land ripe for development, conservation groups typically are engaged in a race against time," comments Peter Scholes of the Trust for Public Land, who negotiated the acquisition of properties along the Mountains to Sound Greenway.

Forest Legacy is only one piece of this ambitious greenway program. Most of the land shielded from development to date has been acquired through equal-value land exchanges involving state and federal agencies. But it's a critical piece, says Ken Konigsmark, a Boeing Company-loaned executive who has worked full-time on the greenway since 1993.

The Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust's ultimate objective, he says, is "a corridor of connecting forestland across the Cascades and down into Seattle that is significant enough to allow wildlife to migrate, to allow people to recreate and get away from the city, and to protect other values like water quality. We would also like to preserve a timber industry here."

With Forest Legacy funds saved from the budget ax by Senator Slade Gorton (R-Washington), the greenway gained 1,100 acres of industrial timberland east of Issaquah slated for development. TPL negotiated the $7.5 million transaction, which enabled the U.S. Forest Service to acquire land owned by Plum Creek Timber Company and Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Development Company. The tracts, with their commanding views of the Cascade Mountains, will remain in forest use and open to the public.

"The Forest Legacy Program gives timber companies with private land holdings another tool for working with governments, conservation groups, and the public to achieve win-win results on important land use issues," says Robert J. Jirsa, director of corporate and environmental affairs for Plum Creek Timber Company.

Timber companies also have found that it is possible to turn a profit from buying timberland to protect its conservation values. One of the leaders in this field is Lyme Timber Company of New Hampshire, which has negotiated twenty-two conservation easements since 1990. Lyme Timber recently completed a complex deal with the state of New Hampshire, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service that protected 6,000 acres adjacent to the Appalachian Trail. The Forest Legacy Program contributed $650,000 toward the purchase of easements and land that was zoned for residential development–support essential to the completion of the deal, notes Peter Stein, a partner in the timber and land development company. "We can get relatively quick return on investment dollars used to purchase timberland, and we're assured a long-term timber supply, while providing other public benefits like recreation," he says.

Successes to Grow On


Even with its tiny budget and its uncertain future, Forest Legacy has scored some significant successes:

  • A $2.5 million contribution from the program provided the missing piece in putting together a 31,500-acre conservation easement in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. The Forest Service negotiated for more than a year with John Hancock Timber Resource Group, a subsidiary of John Hancock Life Insurance Company, to produce the agreement, which includes the largest conservation easement east of the Mississippi.

  • In Massachusetts the program has made possible the purchase of a 73-acre conservation easement that will protect nearly 1,200 acres of the Estabrook Woods, on the outskirts of Boston. The woods, made famous by Henry David Thoreau, had come under increasing development pressure in recent years. Under terms of the easement, the tract will be managed as a sustainable-harvest tree farm, with public access to the historic woodlands.

  • In New Hampshire's White Mountains, Forest Legacy provided a small but critical piece of the funding that allowed TPL to purchase a 5,000-acre lakeshore property. Over several decades the Lake Tarleton property had passed from one would-be developer to another, all of them seeking to capitalize on the area's beauty and recreational assets. As development schemes faltered, the land was logged extensively, threatening wetlands and the water quality of the lake. The most recent owner planned to build an inn and golf course. The failure of that project presented a rare chance to acquire and restore the property, creating a new state park while keeping the best timberland in sustainable forestry.

  • In western Washington, where large timber companies are converting logged-over land to subdivisions in a race to keep up with burgeoning population growth, Forest Legacy also provided $1.2 million toward the purchase of a 130-acre parcel at the intersection of I-90 and a heavily used state highway–prime real estate for commercial developers. The Forest Service acquired the property from TPL in 1995, allowing the land to remain forest, rather than become a shopping mall.

"We know there's a substantial amount of timberland across the country that could be conserved through Forest Legacy," says Helen Hooper of the Land Trust Alliance, "but until we convince members of Congress of this and get an adequate appropriation, we'll continue to see that land being parceled off for development."


Whatever becomes of the Forest Legacy Program, Charles Niebling of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests is confident that its underlying purpose will survive. "Forest Legacy may have been an idea before its time when it was conceived," he says, "but eventually the reality of the need to protect public values on private land will be recognized as right for the times."

Land & People, 1998
For more information on how your state can participate in the Forest Legacy Program, contact your state forester or USFS Cooperative Forestry, at (202) 205-1190.

Kathie Durbin is an environmental writer in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of Tree Huggers: Victory, Defeat and Renewal in the Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign, and is currently writing a political history of Alaska's Tongass National Forest.