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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Trust Lands Deal

Air Date: Week of

Tom Banse (BAHN-see) reports from Seattle on an unusual deal to preserve 25 thousand acres of forest habitat for the rare lynx in Washington state. Environmentalists raised 13 million dollars from high-tech professionals at Microsoft and other local companies, and used the money to pay the state of Washington not to clear-cut the area.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The practice of buying up development rights to environmentally sensitive land is common, though expensive these days. It is a way to protect land and wildlife while letting its owners cash in on at least some of its potential economic value. But one of the latest land buys is turning heads because of who's putting up the money for the purchase, and who's getting paid not to use their land. Tom Banse reports from Seattle.

(Many voices speaking at once)

MAN: Why don't you all grab some pizza, a salad, and then I'll start the slide show.

BANSE: It's lunch time at Microsoft headquarters outside Seattle. Some programmers have torn their eyeballs away from their computer screens long enough to watch an old-fashioned, low-tech slide show.

(Projector fan, slides changing)

SKATRUD: This is a map of what the DNR wants to do in there...

BANSE: A tall, rugged fellow at the front of the room discusses wildlife he's tracked in his favorite remote corner of Washington State. Mark Skatrud is clearly not from here; he's a small-town carpenter and a leader in the drive to keep the chainsaws out of an area known as the Loomis Forest. His group needs to raise a lot of money in a hurry. Rightly or wrongly, the new software millionaires of the 90s have earned the label of being tight-fisted. But Mr. Skatrud knows he's come to the right place.

SKATRUD: All we usually hear about, this young, rich crowd that's coming out of the high-tech industries, how selfish they are. And for me to go in and meet many of these people and find out there's a lot of generosity there.

BANSE: Mark Skatrud's pictures of threatened lynx, bears, and rolling pine forest convinced software test engineer Atziano Olson [name?] to give $3,000.

OLSON: It is incredibly important that things such as the Loomis Forest be preserved from the rapaciousness of mankind. That we can't get along without the unspoiled wilderness and the endangered animals.

BANSE: Some other pledges have been eye-popping. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife gave a quarter million dollars. Other cyber barons toured the forest and then donated stock in their high-flying companies, including Microsoft, Amazon.com, Infoseek, and Real Networks. The high-profile push to preserve the Loomis Forest has been one of the first to tap into the Seattle area's computer-generated wealth, and though it was a nail-biter, the appeal has succeeded. It met the early July deadline to raise $13 million to protect 25,000 acres of forest. But it's not just the source of the money that's unusual here. It's also who owns the land. The Loomis is what's known in the west as state trust land, areas set aside with a mandate to generate money for public schools, universities, or local governments, through logging, mining, or grazing. It was already public land, but there was conflict over what kind of use was in the public interest.

(Footfalls in snow)

BANSE: The Loomis Forest sits high in the Cascade Mountains along the Canadian border 250 miles northeast of Seattle. Even in June, snow lingered in the woods, and the best way to get around was on snowshoes. Mark Skatrud scanned the trail for animal signs, most notably for the prints of a rare predator, the lynx.

SKATRUD: They're here. Lynx are here.

BANSE: Do you see the lynx much?

SKATRUD: I've been tracking lynx for about 6 or 7 years and I've never seen a lynx.

BANSE: Mr. Skatrud's never seen one because the shy, long-legged cat shuns humans. The high-elevation forests of northern Washington State support the highest concentration of lynx in the continental US. Still, that's only 25 or 30 animals.

SKATRUD: Lynx are forest animals. They don't like openings where there are clear-cuts, or alpine areas, or natural meadows. So the best lynx habitat is going to be that area that is continual rolling forest, like we have here.

BANSE: Two years ago a local environmental group sued to stop a state logging plan for the Loomis. A court ordered the case to mediation, and the 2 sides struck a deal. The state agreed never to log the area, and the environmentalists agreed to pay for the value of the uncut trees and for replacement income-producing lands for the trust. Washington Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher says the deal sets a great example.

BELCHER: Private citizens are donating money to the state to do this, and I think that's an unbelievable commitment of the people of this state to their natural resources. I mean, what they're saying is they're willing to put their money where their philosophy is.


BANSE: But in the rural areas near the Loomis Forest, people are alarmed by this turn of events. They argue plenty of wildlife habitat is already protected in the north Cascades. They're concerned that conservation groups funded by far-away software millionaires could shut down their timber-based communities. Mary Lou Peterson and Bonnie Lawrence live in the nearby towns of Oroville and Okanagan.

PETERSON: If there are no jobs, this is not a job market, it goes from logging to truck repair to gasoline sold to groceries sold in the stores. It affects the whole community.

LAWRENCE: We are very concerned with the precedent that this can set.

BANSE: Some conservation groups are also concerned that the Loomis deal could set a bad example of having to pay governments not to mismanage public land. Mitch Friedman is with the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance.

FRIEDMAN: We're not trying to set a precedent that says send us the bill for every wasteful, short-sighted, destructive plan that's out there that threatens our heritage.

BANSE: Mr. Friedman says the successful drive to ransom the trees in the Loomis should signal government leaders that people want environmental values to inform management of trust lands. The Loomis deal is one of the first successful efforts to use the market to protect state trust lands in the west, and it likely won't be the last. Activists in New Mexico and Idaho are fighting for the right to bid against ranchers for state grazing leases. They're all examples that environmentalists are starting to pay more attention to these millions of acres of previously obscure public lands. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Banse in Seattle.



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