Look into the forest: It's dark in there among the skinny trees crammed close together. This isn't old growth. No massive trunks, no cathedral groves meet the eye. The land in this part of the Cascades has been logged and logged again. Much of it lies in areas of relatively little rain. The trees will take generations to grow big.
Aesthetically, it is far preferable to housing developments or widely scattered mcmansions, but beyond that, it has a long, long way to go. The people who will see cathedral forests on the land are not people alive today. When The Nature Conservancy bought this land as part of a scattered 75 square miles east of Snoqualmie Pass, it was making an investment for the long term.
"I think [the purchase is] an historic thing," says Mike Stevens, The Nature Conservancy's regional director, "and it represents the culmination of 20 years of work, conducted by a lot of different parties."
Historic indeed: The Nature Conservancy's 48,000-acre purchase effectively cleared the last of the "checkerboard" in the I-90 corridor east of the Pass, ending a pattern of land ownership dating back to a law that Abraham Lincoln had signed during the Civil War. The Northern Pacific Railroad Act of 1864 offered alternating sections of land on either side of the track to any company that built a railroad from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound. Builders of other rail lines in other places got similar deals.
In the Northwest, the land went to the Northern Pacific Railroad, which soon came under control of James J. Hill, who subsequently built the Great Northern over much the a largely parallel route, winding up in Everett. Over the years, those roads merged with others to form the Burlington Northern. In the 1980s, the forest lands were spun off into Burlington Resources and then into Plum Creek Timber. Through purchases and swaps, environmental groups and public agencies chipped away at the checkerboard pattern for decades. But a big chunk remained.
Then, on Dec. 18, The Nature Conservancy announced it had bought 47,921 acres from Plum Creek, the last major private holdings along the I-90 corridor east of Snoqualmie Pass.
The railroad land grants shaped Washington in many ways. For one thing, they put much of the most valuable timber under the control first of the railroad companies. (The railroads did not leave this to chance. "In locating an exact route from the Columbia to Puget Sound, [Northern Pacific Railroad] engineers tried to lay track through the most heavily timbered areas," Robert Ficken wrote in The Forested Land: a History of Lumbering in Western Washington, "so that valuable timberland would be included in the land grant.") And then, in some cases, they sold the timberland to third-party purchasers, most notably Frederick Weyerhaeuser. Weyerhauser's bargain purchase of 900,000 acres along the Northern Pacific route made it a key player in Washington for more than a century and, for years, the largest private timber landowner in the United States — a distinction that was subsequently captured by Plum Creek.
The new state of Washington received millions of acres from the federal government for support of the "common schools" and other public institutions, but partly because railroads and other private interests gobbled up the best, most accessible forest, the state wound up with scattered leftovers. That's why Washington's take from state lands never supported public schools or school construction in the manner that people once expected.
The land that The Nature Conservancy bought at the end of last year includes some 10,000 acres on Cle Elum Ridge, which rises behind the towns of Roslyn and Cle Elum, separating them from the Teanaway Valley, where 46,000 acres were preserved in a major but controversial land deal in 2013. (The Teanaway deal was controversial because it came as part of a Yakima Basin plan that was rife with tradeoffs. In exchange for saving land in the Teanaway and another 25,000 acres in other places, the plan involves — but does not guarantee — raising the dam that currently holds back Bumping Lake and building a new Wymer Dam near Yakima.) The TNC purchase also includes acreage scattered southwest of Cle Elum, above Easton, beside Kachess Lake. If you drive east from Snoqualmie Pass, look over Keechelus Lake, and the purchase includes the (logged) mountainsides you see beyond the water. Get past the lake, and the newly preserved land is beside the freeway, at the exit for Stampede Pass.
The Nature Conservancy had been talking with Plum Creek Timber about this land for a decade, joining a conversation that had started about a decade before that. This $49-million deal was part of the organization's larger Great Western Checkerboards project, which uses money from the Wyss Foundation (which provides serious funding to preserve Western landscapes), as well as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and others.
The organization first acquired land from Plum Creek back in 2007, explains TNC's Eastern Washington conservation director, James Schroeder. In the intervening years, the two organizations did several modest deals. "We were wondering," Schroeder says, "when Plum Creek would come to a tipping point" at which it would be willing to sell all the remaining land and how to be ready to act whenever it did. When the time finally came, he says, "Having the long-term relationship with Plum Creek really helped." So did the fact that after working in Washington for the past 60 years, his group had the capacity to take on something so big.
Right now, a lot of the land isn't pretty, but critters live there, and it connects big blocks of protected habitat on both sides of the freeway. Preserving and connecting habitat is one of the biggest benefits of the purchase, Stevens says.
As in the Teanaway, "connectivity" becomes one of the buzzwords. How can wide-ranging critters get from here to there? In the short term, the ability to travel long distances enables them to find food, avoid bad weather, find mates. In the long term, it may help them cope with the effects of climate change. "I think what this project allows us to do is have a connected forest from the crest of the Cascades all the way down to the shrub-steppe of the Columbia Plateau," Schroeder says. On two legs or four, "you could move from high elevation to low elevation without any impediment."
Schroeder points out that the land not only connects elk migration corridors between winter and summer ranges, it also includes areas within which Northern Spotted Owls live. Plus, it lies in the range of the Teanaway wolf pack and covers part of the North Cascades' grizzly bear recovery area.
It does not, of course, eliminate the barrier of Interstate 90, patrolled by semis hurtling east and west at 70 miles an hour. However, a highway project along the stretch of I-90 just east of Snoqualmie Pass — which is straightening, widening and buffering the freeway from avalanches — will include the first wildlife bridge over the freeway. It will connecting forest on the north and south near the snow park just east of Lake Keechelus.
Wildlife can already use underpasses at Rocky Run and Cabin Creek. But some critters just don't like going through tunnels. For them, bridges are the best way across the freeway. The Washington Department of Transportation expects work to start in June. The project phase, including the bridge, is scheduled to be done in 2020.
Until the TNC purchase, the south end of the bridge would have led directly to Plum Creek industrial forest, with no long-term guarantee that it would be preserved as habitat. For that and other reasons, "we're thrilled" by the Nature Conservancy purchase, said Conservation Northwest's I-90 Bridges Campaign coordinator Jen Watkins.
Wolverines may be among the main beneficiaries, Watkins says. Not long after the purchase, she recalls, "We heard from [the Washington State Department of Transportation] that there were wolverine tracks documented just about 9 miles from the interstate." Wolverines have large home ranges, she explains. "They travel a lot. As the wolverine population grows in the North Cascades," the animals will push south. Some will wind up south of the freeway. It will become crucial to connect the populations north and south, she explains, so that neither becomes genetically isolated. "They can only thrive so long in islands of habitat," she says.
And climate change will make the connections more important. "Wolverine are particularly affected by climate change and changing snowpack," Schroeder says. They need deep snow, and as snow packs dwindle, being able to travel freely among the remaining places in which snow lingers into spring will become increasingly important.
If "connectivity" is a buzzword for the forest as habitat, "resilience" is a buzzword for the forest as an enduring ecosystem. A resilient eastside forest will resist fire and the effects of climate change. It is a forest as nature more-or-less intended. Schroeder says he has a pretty clear picture of what the new forest would look like. It would look like the eastside forests of old. That is, it would not be crowded with young trees or stocked with non-native species, and it would contain plenty of ponderosa pines that over time grow big and develop bark so thick that most fires won't penetrate it. Oh, and there won't be a lot of underbrush in which fires can start. Lightning used to start some fires that cleared the forest floor, and Indians used to clear it by setting low-intensity fires late in the year.
The newly-purchased forest is a long way from anything like that. "For these forests to function properly, we've got to invest in a lot of restoration," Schroeder says. Leave it alone and eventually, a healthy native forest will develop on the land. But The Nature Conservancy won't leave all of it alone. "In some places," Schroeder says, restoration "just looks like letting trees grow." In others, though, it involves thinning. He talks about following the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest's "Forest Restoration Strategy," which aims for resiliency.
The Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest, required by law to go through a lengthy public process, hasn't yet put its restoration strategy into action. The Nature Conservancy can try it out, Schroeder says. The organization wants to get started almost right away. "Hopefully we'll have a forest management plan in place by the late summer," Schroeder says. He had hoped to start work on the ground before the end of this calendar year but now figures that 2016 looks more realistic.
The Nature Conservancy is part of the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, the Yakama Nation, and the state departments of natural resources and fish and wildlife. The Collaborative is working to restore forests and forest ecosystems east of the Cascade crest. To start with, the Conservancy had kept only about 600 acres of forest, just enough to give it a place at the table, but not enough to really make it a player. The new purchase changes that. Conservancy ownership would "enable the Tapash to launch a large-scale restoration project" on the west end of Manashtash Ridge (a more easterly part of which one drives over between Ellensburg and Yakima), Stevens says.
The big question about restoration is how you pay for it. "The next big challenge is really an economic one," Stevens says Realistically, you have to sell some of the trees you thin. "We just know that we're not going to get to the kind of scale we'll need on the basis of grants," he says.
But who will buy those trees? This is mostly lousy wood. We're talking small trees, and the priority for thinning will be small trees that are dead or diseased. Haul this wood very far, and there's no chance of processing it at a profit. Besides, there's almost no place to haul it. Mills east of the Cascades have mostly disappeared.
Therefore, someone would have to build new processing facilities. No one will invest in a new mill unless they can count on an adequate volume and continuous flow of timber. "Before anyone in their right mind would make that kind of investment," Stevens says, "they'd need a high degree of confidence in the supply." The Forest Service, with its bidding requirements and public process, would be hard-pressed to guarantee a long-term supply. As a landowner, though, The Nature Conservancy can sell to whomever it wants. Already, Schroeder says, "we've been approached ... by several companies that are interested in understanding what the timber supply could be coming off our property."
Processing that timber wouldn't just be a matter of ripping traditional big logs into traditional 2x4s. "We've got to figure out what to do with small-diameter wood and wood that doesn't convert into dimensional lumber," he explains, "to show how some of this stuff that's not considered merchantable can actually provide some value."
The Nature Conservancy has put itself in a position to bend the economics of forest restoration on the eastside, Schroeder says. "As a private landowner of this much land," he suggests, "we can change the conversation."