Massive land deal stops sprawl, causes layoffs

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SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - Evergreen Forest Trust, a nonprofit organization that aims to preserve forest lands in Washington from encroaching development, has reached a tentative agreement with Weyerhaeuser Co. to buy the Snoqualmie Tree Farm for $185 million, causing layoffs to the company's local operations and bringing to an end its long history of logging in the Snoqualmie Valley.

To accomplish this huge acquisition - the Snoqualmie Tree Farm is almost twice the size of Seattle - the trust would issue tax-exempt Community Forestry Bonds, marking the first time in the United States revenue bonds have been used for land conservation.

If the purchase-and-sale agreement is approved, the trust would assume management of the Snoqualmie Tree Farm, which would be renamed the Evergreen Forest at Snoqualmie. It would continue to harvest timber from the land to pay off the bond debt.

The tree farm includes the North Fork of the Snoqualmie and Tolt rivers and extends south near North Bend to north of the King-Snohomish county line. Carnation lies close to its west side, while the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest border it to the east.

Of the 104,000-acre tree farm, Evergreen Forest Trust would acquire 99,000 acres. Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal said the company would keep the surface rights to the remaining 5,000 acres near the city of Seattle's reservoir on the South Fork of the Tolt River, and it would continue to hold the mineral rights to all of the tree farm.

The deal is noteworthy not only for its size - it is believed to be the largest ever land purchase in the Pacific Northwest in terms of money - but also for its intent. As more people move into King County, the 12th largest county in the nation, the pressure to develop rural areas has increased, and so has the danger of harming habitat for endangered species such as salmon and the northern spotted owl and reducing water and air quality.

"That property will no longer be subject to the threat of development, and that property will remain as forest," Gerry Johnson said of the Snoqualmie Tree Farm. Johnson is president of the Evergreen Forest Trust board of directors and managing partner of the Seattle law firm Preston, Gates and Ellis LLP.

Richard Hanson, senior vice president of timberlands for Federal Way-based Weyerhaeuser, said Evergreen Forest Trust would receive some of the best forest land in the state if the agreement goes through.

"This forest is in excellent condition, and we're extremely proud of our loggers and foresters with what they've done over the years," he said.

"The Snoqualmie forest remains a magnificent parcel and contains some of the best tree-growing lands in the Northwest."

North Bend Councilman Mark Sollitto, who also works in King County Executive Ron Sims' Office of Regional Policy and Planning, said the deal was a "mixed bag."

"On the one hand, it's an absolutely stunning conservation measure," he said. But with the layoffs, "That's a huge issue economically and emotionally for those families."

Sollitto added that North Bend could breathe a little easier because Snoqualmie Tree Farm land would remain undeveloped.

"If it were to be developed, we would become a likely portal accesswise to that area," he said.

Under the agreement, a conservation easement will prevent any development from occurring on Snoqualmie Tree Farm land. Ten thousand acres along environmentally sensitive rivers, creeks and lakes will be permanently set aside from logging, and the amount of buffer areas will be increased to 10,000 acres.

Gene Duvernoy, president of the Cascade Land Conservancy and a member of the Evergreen Forest Trust board of directors, called the Snoqualmie Tree Farm "the golden grail of land conservation in King County." The Cascade Land Conservancy will hold the conservation easement.

As Evergreen Forest Trust and Weyerhaeuser officials discussed the acquisition, the Snoqualmie Tree Farm was given a code name: "Jewel."

"I could not think of a more apt name for this property," said Metropolitan King County Councilman Rob McKenna, a Republican from Bellevue and board member of Evergreen Forest Trust.

60 laid off

But in addition to the $185 million price tag, there is an additional cost: Sixty Weyerhaeuser employees, many of whom with more than 20 years on the job, will be laid off as a direct result of the agreement. Of the 60 employees, 53 work locally and seven are based in Enumclaw.

There was little warning of the layoffs, as Weyerhaeuser employees learned their fate early Jan. 16 - just a few hours before Evergreen Forest Trust and Weyerhaeuser officials announced the deal at the top of the Columbia Tower in downtown Seattle, from which the Snoqualmie Tree Farm could be seen.

"It shocked the hell out of me, to be honest with you," said Garlie King, president of Lumber and Sawmill Workers Local 1845, of the layoffs. And he wasn't alone.

"Looking around the room, it looked to me like they [Weyerhaeuser employees] were just stunned," King said.

The workers were given 60 days' notice, during which they will continue to be paid by Weyerhaeuser. They will receive some assistance from the company with job placement, and King said he is meeting with Weyerhaeuser officials to discuss pensions.

"We're going to ask if some can draw early, but it's all negotiable," he said.

At its peak, Local 1845 had more than 1,000 members. That number has since dropped to 105.

King said the future doesn't look too promising for the laid-off workers, many of whom live in the Snoqualmie Valley.

"A lot of those people, there's no place to go," he said. "That's all they've done all their lives, and there's nothing out there - nothing."

Sollitto called on Valley residents to lend a hand to the workers.

"Hopefully we can rally as a Valley to support these families in a difficult time," he said.

'A business decision'

While environmentalists have long eyed the Snoqualmie Tree Farm, it wasn't until Weyerhaeuser and King County officials were negotiating the recent Snoqualmie Preservation Initiative that the company said it was willing to discuss selling the land, which has played a central role in the Valley's history.

But Weyerhaeuser's reasons aren't entirely altruistic. Hanson said the agreement was good for company shareholders, and others stated the cost of doing business in King County is too high.

"This is a business decision that the company made," Sollitto said.

Even before the announcement, harvesting timber had slowed to a halt in the Snoqualmie Tree Farm. Workers were told it was because Weyerhaeuser hadn't received the appropriate county permits.

"It's pretty tough to do business [in King County]," King said.

Weyerhaeuser was growing its third generation of trees in the tree farm. Each generation requires 40 to 50 years before it is ready to harvest.

Dick Ryon, who was the Cascade land-use manager for Weyerhaeuser in the 1980s and '90s, said in the decades it took the Snoqualmie Tree Farm's third generation of trees to grow, many of the old environmental regulations were replaced, and they continue to be rewritten to this day.

"The rules are always changing," he said.

Development near the tree farm increased property taxes Weyerhaeuser paid to the county. Couple that with the changing land-use regulations, Ryon said, and it becomes more cost-effective for Weyerhaeuser to sell the land.

"It was just becoming too problematical to cut in the long-term," he said.

Logging tradition ends

For the past 100 years, logging was the major industry of the Snoqualmie Valley, with Weyerhaeuser's generations of trees employing generations of local families.

Weyerhaeuser bought what would become the Snoqualmie Tree Farm in 1916. That same decade, it started the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Co. sawmill as a joint venture. Small communities dotted the Upper Valley, dependent on the business generated by logging and the sawmill.

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