Columbia Land Trust Realizes a bold vision more than a decade in the making
While Douglas-firs dominate the landscape on the southern flanks of Mount St. Helens, the stumps of massive cedars lining the forest floor tell a deeper story. They are reminders that, in nature and in human endeavors, lasting change takes time.
Case in point: Columbia Land Trust, in partnership with Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), recently helped facilitate the conservation of 7,800 acres surrounding the east end of Swift Reservoir south of Mount St. Helens.
This achievement didn’t happen overnight. In 2006, an unexpected development boom threatened to transform the remote forestlands around Swift Reservoir into a sprawling complex of cabins and resort communities. Alarmed Skamania County commissioners considered down-zoning the entire area, which prompted Pope Resources, a timber group and the area’s largest private landowner, to threaten litigation. A decade after the timber wars of the Pacific Northwest subsided, a conservationist and a timber executive began talking in search of common ground.
Cherie Kearney, Columbia Land Trusts’ forest conservation director, and Jon Rose, president of Olympic Property Group, a subsidiary of Pope Resources, represented different interests. While the Land Trust wanted to avoid the commercial development that would fragment 20,000 acres of productive forestland, Pope Resources wanted to secure some ability to develop their land while continuing their forestry operations. They came together around a shared desire to avert a crisis of development.
“The plan we put forward represented a shift in the Land Trust’s approach to landscape-scale strategies that take time,” said Kearney. The unlikely pair negotiated an up-front, 10-year agreement in good faith, and they held true to their word. Across four phases, the deal kept 17,600 acres in working forestry through conservation easements, including the recent 7,800-acre conservation easement held by Washington DNR.
“To build an informal partnership between a county government, a conservation group, and a timber group, we all had to challenge our preconceived notions a little bit,” said Rose. “It required a great deal of trust.”
The agreement also conserved the forests along Pine Creek, a cold, swift-moving stream relied upon by threatened bull trout. In 2013, during the second phase of the deal, Columbia Land Trust purchased and began restoring a 2,330-acre property from Pope Resources dubbed Pine Creek East.
Five years later, forest restoration efforts on the site are showing early returns. With the help of a forester, several areas of the forest have been thinned, meaning they’ve been selectively logged to allow remaining trees more room to grow large. Over time, these areas will develop the complex characteristics of a natural, old-growth forest with varying ages and species of trees. The thinning work employs local loggers while also generating income for the Land Trust to care for this landscape.
By permanently preventing development on 20,000 acres, the Land Trust is filling a gap in protected lands between Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, patching the fabric of iconic forests, streams, and peaks that make up Washington’s southern Cascades.
In addition to supplying southwest Washingtonians with myriad recreation opportunities, these vast tracts of forest serve as crucial corridors for wildlife. Our trail camera at Pine Creek East has spotted elk, deer, black bears, coyotes, mountain lions, and bobcats. Species long extirpated from the region, including wolverines and fishers, have also been showing signs of recovery in the area. At a time when most environmental news highlights painful losses, Pine Creek East is a place that is only growing wilder.
While Kearney looks forward to conserving more vital lands, Columbia Land Trust stewardship director Ian Sinks contemplates the future of Pine Creek East in particular. “It’s an entirely different world,” said Sinks. “I’ve crawled all over most of that place in the past five years. There are ghosts up there in the form of old cedar stumps. I won’t say it’s magical, but there’s enough out there to spark my imagination for what’s to come.”
If the forests of Mount St. Helens offer the adage “Change takes time,” the massive boulders strewn about its slopes during the 1980 eruption suggest that change can also be sudden. Today, we at the Land Trust are acting with urgency and purpose protecting and restoring forests at Mount St. Helens. We know development threats can crop up without warning, and once an area is developed, we risk losing places, species, ecosystems, natural resources, and experiences that we cannot replace.