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Group rallies to preserve local forests

As development encroaches on the Valley, public concern for

preserving wilderness areas has become a hot issue.

One of the organizations responding to those concerns is the

Sierra Club's local Cascade Chapter. Its Cascade Checkerboard Project,

established about eight years ago, facilitates the sale or transfer of land from

private to public ownership, which conserves forests and other natural areas.

"If you really want to preserve (land), you have to put it into

public ownership," said Project Director Charley Raines.

Raines has worked in land conservation for more than 30 years. He

volunteered for the Sierra Club for 25 years, and has been employed with

the organization for seven. In addition, Raines is a board member for

Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, another local land conservancy

group that works at preserving acreage along the Interstate 90 corridor.

He said the checkerboard project's main purpose is to restore and

manage the central Cascade forest's ecological health and to eliminate the

century-old chckerboard pattern of land.

In the early 1900s, land was issued to railroads in alternating,

one-square-mile plots on both sides of the track. Property not belonging to the

railroad was public land that the government gave to homesteaders. The

Northern Pacific Railway (which became part of Burlington Northern) was

granted 40 million acres from Lake Superior across several states to the

Puget Sound.

Currently, approximately 250,000 privately owned acres are

sprinkled among national forests in the Cascades. Logging companies,

including Weyerhaeuser, Plum Creek Timber Co. and Longview Fibre Co. are

the major landholders of private checkerboard areas.

"The checkerboard pattern is one of the worst patterns to manage

land," said Frank Mendizabal, director of media relations for Weyerhaeuser.

"If you are managing one acre for logging and the one next door is for

wildlife habitat, they may not be compatible."

He added that taking land out of a checkerboard pattern is easier to

manage and preferable to all parties involved.

In the last few years, the Cascade Checkerboard Project has helped

put approximately 61,000 acres back into public ownership through land swaps.

But now, instead of swapping, the goal is to purchase the land.

"What is clear in this area is that we have already traded all the land

that can be (traded), so the only way to protect the land is to buy it,"

Raines said, explaining that remaining forest land is too precious to trade with

logging companies.

In this land-buying effort, the Sierra Club has recently teamed

with several similar organizations to form the Cascades Conservation

Partnership. This coalition has identified 75,000 acres of checkerboard

land deemed high-priority for converting to public land.

The specified area lies between North Bend and Cle Elum and

between Alpine Lake Wilderness Area and Mount Rainier National Park.

"Our concern is that if we don't get this land bought from Plum

Creek and Longview Fibre Co., then we will lose old-growth species and

hiking trails through logging," said Mark Lawler, a Sierra Club and

Checkerboard Project volunteer. He explained that Plum Creek has put in an

application to begin the logging process on part of the targeted land, starting

with road-grading, as early as this fall.

Raines said animals that live in this area also need protection. He

added that a wildlife corridor needs to be more clearly established between

the areas north and south of I-90 to ensure species survival. Biologists

have told him large, uninterrupted territories are essential for them to breed

and prosper.

Members of the Conservation Partnership have gathered $4.6

million in public donations and have been working with the federal

government to generate additional funds to buy the targeted acres, which add up to

approximately $150 million.

For now, they're trying for $30 million. Sen. Slade Gorton,

R-Wash., has asked Congress to allocate a minimum of $5 million from the

national Land and Water Conservation Fund, which comes from royalties paid

by petroleum companies that drill oil off the coast.

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