Columbia Land Trust strikes balance, conserves Pine Creek
Aerial view of the Pine Creek drainage
Columbia Land Trust teamed up with a timber company and public leaders to avert a development crisis south of Mount St. Helens.

Those who have had the pleasure (and pain) of climbing the slopes of Mount St. Helens likely recall stopping on occasion to catch a breath and admire the expansive southward vista. Pale gray scree fields and mudflow remnants give way to dense, forested valleys fanning out toward Swift Reservoir. Today, it’s a breathtaking landscape featuring wildlife habitat and working forests that bolster the local economy—but these lands nearly suffered a very different fate.

Pine Creek

The cold, swift-moving waters of Pine Creek offer ideal bull trout habitat.

In the mid-2000s, housing developments started sprouting up in the region’s privately owned forests. Controversy over an eruption of unchecked development around the reservoir reached a tipping point in 2006. That’s when Columbia Land Trust, Pope Resources (a Washington-based timberland company and the county’s largest private landowner), and Skamania County began collaborating on a private solution to a complex set of problems.

Through this partnership, the Land Trust developed a comprehensive Mount St. Helens Forest Conservation effort to protect from development 20,000 acres around the Swift Reservoir on the Lewis River; all while balancing needs for productive timberlands and economic opportunity.

Today, a crucial phase of this multi-year effort came to fruition as Columbia Land Trust purchased the development rights for 3,095 acres of contiguous forestlands west of Pine Creek. The purchase permanently protects critical riparian (riverside) habitat and ensures continued forestry on some 2,885 acres.

bull trout

bull trout (salvelinus confluentus)

“This project shows what can be achieved when a timber company, a conservation group and public leaders put their heads together to find lasting conservation solutions that benefit both people and nature, ” says Columbia Land Trust Executive Director Glenn Lamb.

Dubbed Pine Creek West, the project area complements a 2013 Land Trust purchase of 2,330 acres east of Pine Creek. Together, the two purchases protect virtually the entire watershed from development. The Pine Creek watershed is the most ecologically important feature within the Mount St. Helens Forest Conservation area because it provides habitat for federally endangered bull trout and abundant wildlife including the Mount St. Helens elk herd.

The Washington Wildlife & Recreation Program (WWRP) provided nearly 1.3 million dollars in funding for the Pine Creek West conservation easement. Funded bi-annually by the legislature, this state grant program aims to preserve working farms, create new local and state parks, and protect wildlife habitat. WWRP had identified the area west of Pine Creek as a high-priority riparian protection project.

“Pine Creek West is a perfect example of WWRP funding working to protect our state’s most beloved places while preserving jobs and public access,” says Joanna Grist, Executive Director of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, non-profit advocates for WWRP. “Conservation on Pine Creek helps ensure Mount St. Helens remains a haven for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts alike.”

Through this project, Pope Resources, local officials, and public funders demonstrated the type of cooperation that is becoming more important—across the Northwest and nationally—as population and development pressures spread to remote habitat areas. Fair and balanced deals like this one can take years, but it’s worth it when forests are conserved forever.