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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
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
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
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.