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Forterra moves closer to saving Port Gamble’s sweetest forests

Forest along the Washington coast. Credit: Flickr user Wallflower83 (CC)

Updated at 11:52 a.m. on March 27: It turns out that the sky hasn't fallen on Forterra's effort to buy 6700 acres of Port Gamble forest from Pope Resources after all.

On Tuesday, I reported that no one had come up with the money to buy all that land, and that therefore, the future of the forest was uncertain. That was and still is true. But the chances of preserving the land look much better than anyone was willing to reveal, even two days ago.

In fact, Forterra has demonstrated enough likelihood of coming up with the funds to reach the next stage of negotiation.  The organization now has another year to work out purchase and sale agreements with Pope, nailing down the details and raising the cash. The property has been divided into five blocks. 

Forterra executive vice president Michelle Connor says that, conceivably, her group could raise enough money to buy some but not all of the five. Whether or not it could buy a portion of a block is a detail that remains to be worked out. In any case, Connor says, it now looks likely that much, if not all, of that land will be preserved, and that the eventual deal with Pope will cover all the shoreline.

Originally published March 26 at 5 a.m.:

S'Klallam tribal chairman Jeromy Sullivan, who dives commercially for geoducks, says that he dived just once along the western shore of Port Gamble Bay, where thousands of pilings formerly held logs for a now-defunct sawmill at the head of the bay. On the bottom, he found a wasteland of gray muck. His feet sank in. Nothing grew. He found a geoduck there, he says, but he couldn't imagine selling it to anyone for food. The mill operated there for 142 years. In places, the wood waste lies seven feet deep. Sullivan has never gone back.

In the long run, says Sullivan, who lives on his tribe's small reservation above the eastern shore, he has a personal vision of a bay filled with "bright and pristine" water. "I won't see it," he acknowledges, "but my kids and their kids and their kids will."

The state Department of Ecology and Pope Resources have just moved Port Gamble Bay a bit closer to that vision. On March 22, they announced an agreement that commits Pope — a spin-off of the mill, created to own and manage the company's extensive Washington holdings — to a $17 million clean-up of the bay, which will include removing both tons of sediment and thousands of pilings.

The agreement also commits $2 million in state money to buy 470 acres of Pope land and 83 acres of tidelands along the western shore, saving them from development. The dry land will be held by Kitsap County, the tidelands by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Port Gamble had already made the Ecology's list of 7 "priority bays" in Puget Sound, so prospects for a cleanup have looked good all along. But the future of the forests that stand on the bluff above and ultimately drain into the bay, is at best up in the air.

Eighteen months ago, saving the forests from development or unsustainable logging looked like a solid bet. The forests were in the news, as Pope Resources gave Forterra an 18-month option to buy 6,700 acres of forest, including 1.8 miles of shoreline, along and above Port Gamble Bay.

The option agreement got good press. Virtually everyone seemed to like the idea of all that land and the bay below it protected for all time. Arguably, no one could find another big land acquisition that meant so much to Puget Sound. But there was a catch: Money. The lack of money. The lack of any obvious way to come up with the money. There is still no willing buyer for most of it. Forterra's option has just run out.

Even as the option agreement was entering its final days, Forterra executive vice-president Michelle Connor said she was confident that the shoreline would be preserved. It had already attracted money from a number of sources, including the state. Last year, despite the sense of financial crisis and the generally low expectations, the Legislature’s supplemental capital budget included money — in the form of a tax exemption — to buy land along the shore of Port Gamble Bay.

However, the purchase was contingent on an agreement between the Department of Ecology and Pope for a voluntary clean-up of the water near the old mill site. If they didn't agree, the state money for land acquisition would go away. The department wanted Pope to dredge up the tons of wood waste along the shore and to remove all the old creosoted docks and pilings. The docks themselves were only part of the problem; with them in place, there was no way to get at all the wood waste.

But Pope didn’t want to remove the docks. The company plans to develop the mill’s old company town – patterned after an old Maine community – at a higher density and, to increase the value of development there, it wants to build a new dock. It's a picturesque place — designated a National Historic Landmark — that Pope Resources says it subsidizes to the tune of $750,000 a year. The old docks it hoped to use as leverage against people who might object to building something new.

For Ecology, that was a deal breaker. Negotiations faltered, delaying the approval process – and thus the purchase agreement. Eventually, Pope and Ecology worked it out: The two southern docks can stay until 2015. Pope's bill for natural resource damages, as opposed to cleanup, will be worked out separately.

Water quality aside, Sullivan notes that at low tide, tribal members still harvest a lot of shellfish.

Standing near the beach at Point Julia, Roma Call, the tribe's environmental coordinator, explains that Port Gamble Bay is shallower than the rest of Hood Canal, so it provides a refuge for juvenile salmon and habitat for forage fish. Just north of Point Julia, Call says, extensive eelgrass beds form the second-most important herring spawning area in the Sound. Endangered marbled murrelets fish in the bay, she adds, although the trees around it would have to grow for decades to offer the murrelets old-growth nesting habitat.

If only those trees were more impressive: Buying the forested uplands hasn't risen to the tops of many grant lists. The land along the bay is sexy enough, but most of the forest isn't waterfront. It isn't old growth. It doesn't provide habitat for some charismatic endangered species.

Whether or not the forest is preserved, Pope Resources wants out. "It's really very, very good soil [for growing trees],” says Jon Rose, president of the Olympic Property Group. Conifers will grow big there. But "if you look at the map," Pope's holdings on the northern Kitsap Peninsula aren't out in the wilderness any more; there are too many neighbors who don't like the sound of chainsaws in the early morning, the encounters with log trucks, the views of clearcuts. 

Like Weyerhaeuser, the company wants to abandon central Puget Sound for southwestern Washington. It has actually increased its forest acreage in recent years — but not in Kitsap County.

In 2007, Pope called a public meeting to see what people in North Kitsap wanted to do with the land. The meeting was packed. The company received 642 written comments. "If that meeting didn't happen," Rose says, "[the sale of the land to someone else] would have been a done deal." But the meeting made clear that a lot of people in the community cared about what happened to that land. "This was my basis to go to my board," he said, where Rose got an OK for the long process of figuring out what to do with the property.

Not long ago, Pope thought it had found a way to unload and preserve most of the land with no outside money required: It would trade development rights for 80 percent of the land to Kitsap County in exchange for permission to develop a dense new "contained community" on the town site.

For a while, it looked as though that idea might fly. The proposal got favorable press, but the tribes didn't like it. The county council member who had been pushing it resigned. And the concept of a new contained community was scrapped.

The forest purchase may not be off the table, but even before Forterra's option expired, it had started looking closer to the edge. Those uplands are worth a lot more than they were when Pope and Forterra signed the option agreement in 2011. For some time, American pension funds and other big investors have been buying large tracts of timber land. In the past half year or so, Connor explains, European investors have been looking for smaller chunks, driving up the price. A lot of conservation projects have been put on hold because of the price spike, she says.

Of course Connor is disappointed that things haven’t worked out so far, but she says she’s basically an optimist — in her line of work, she has to be. And she notes that negotiating the deal that preserved the former Glacier site on the shore of Maury Island as a King County Park, rather than letting Glacier develop it as a huge gravel mine, took Forterra 10 years.

And if things don't work out? It will certainly send the wrong message. "I know that we are being watched by many other large land owner groups," Rose said last year. "We have to make this one work." He argued that

"In terms of a Puget Sound drama," he argued, "you just do not get better than this … It's the ultimate 'save Puget Sound' drama." He recalled that "someone in one of the state [environmental agencies] said, 'You know, if we can't pull this thing off, I fear for our efforts to save Puget Sound.'"

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