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Saturday, May 8, 2021

What it took to save Blanchard Mountain

Views of the valley below through an area of cleared trees on the drive up to the Samish Overlook that connects to the Oyster Dome trail. // Photo by Kelly Pearce

By Shaina Yaranon

It’s a hiking haven loved by many and a crown jewel of Skagit County. Just out of Bellingham via Chuckanut Drive, Oyster Dome overlooks an expanse of old growth forest. The trail climbs steadily up Blanchard Mountain under dense foliage. The summit is situated atop a rocky bluff where the Cascade Mountains jut off to the Salish Sea. On clear days, hikers often watch the sun rise and set above the distant archipelago of the San Juan islands. This hike is a vital part of what makes Bellingham’s outdoor scene unique, but, for nearly a decade, the area was in danger of becoming logged.

Oyster Dome is a part of the Blanchard State Forest in the Chuckanut Mountain Range. Approximately 100,000 people make their way to this 4800 acre scenic area for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding each year, according to data from the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

State plans to log Blanchard mountain in the early-2000s were met with a large community outcry. The fight lasted over 15 years, as community organizations struggled to get funding to pull the land out of the hands of developers and loggers.

“It is a tricky landscape because it is so heavily used by the public. So a lot of people, when they want to hike, they don’t like the idea of going on a trail through a recently harvested area. They want mature forest to be hiking through,” said Chris Hankey, the Baker District Manager of the Washington Department of Natural Resources..

Blanchard Mountain is managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. The DNR also works through logging issues and resolves ongoing concerns.

“That’s what we do, we are required to make revenue for the public. Funds that go toward things like public infrastructure or public services,” Hankey said.

In 2006, the DNR put together a diverse group of leaders from different interests and on all sides of the issue, called the Blanchard Strategy Group, comprised of foresters, business people, community members, conservation groups and representatives. They were all brought together and were appointed to come up with an ecologically, socially and economically appropriate solution. They essentially had to find a way to break the gridlock and see if they could all reach an agreement. They agreed on protecting a 1,600 acre forested core (of the total 4,500 acre forest).

However, in order for there to be a protected core, there had to be money appropriated so that the area could be set aside. The Blanchard Strategy Group would gain full protection if they were able to raise enough funds to secure and buy out the 1,600 acre core in five years. The cost was over $12.8 million.

Instead of that money going to the trust, such as the county and the school district, the money was to go to the DNR to buy land that would be managed for the trust.

The land that the DNR tried to buy was private timber that was at risk of slipping to development rather than logging. The main goal and what enabled the agreement was not only to protect Blanchard Mountain but to sustain a working forest and keep timber jobs, timber production and rural economies.

But the agreement was met with controversy. The Blanchard Strategy Group were only able to protect a third of the 4,500 acres of state forest.

There were many concerns about how they would be able to secure enough money to help pay for the core.

Views from the top of the Oyster Dome trail. // Photo by Kelly Pearce

“It took us 15 all-day meetings to get to that point. And to fulfill that agreement required about $13 million. In 2008, the legislature put about $7 million  in and we were rolling. We thought that we had a chance to not only get all the funding in just a couple years but to really open a broader conversation about state lands management and instead the recession hit,” said Mitch Friedman, the Executive Director of Conservation Northwest.

It was at that point that the economy collapsed, leaving the state with a more limited budget.  The  McCleary Supreme Court ruling was prioritized, which required the legislature to put a lot more money and focus into schools.

“And so what we thought would be a one or two year effort turned into a ten year effort – every single year making trips to Olympia as a coalition and trying to conditionalize,” Friedman said.

It was challenging to reach funding, but stakeholders were able to give them more time due to these difficulties.

In 2015, nearing the deadline, the community and constituents came together and fought their hardest to let legislature know how important Blanchard was to them. It was a tremendous community effort.

“So many people really care about Blanchard. Bikers, hikers, air sports folks, the equestrians, the neighbors who live down there. And the legislators of the 40th district, all of those people plus the other interest that stood by their agreement in 2007. Even timber interest and Skagit County and the Burlington Edison School District, everybody stood by their agreement and all the citizens cared, wrote letters, made phone calls, went to meetings,” Friedman said.

In 2017, Blanchard was funded by the Capital Budget Bill and Commissioner Hilary Franz of the DNR impeded logging so that the Blanchard Strategy Group could have more time to work with the legislators to get funding.

On Jan. 18, 2018, the state legislature approved the Capital Budget which will protect the Blanchard Mountain core from logging, according to Conservation Northwest.

“It’s been a decade of work by the Blanchard Strategy Group and also supporters of protecting Blanchard throughout Skagit and Whatcom County primarily, but also people as far as Seattle and beyond have been supportive,” said Molly Doran, the executive director of Skagit Land Trust.

The majority of the trails are inside the core, but there are trails still outside the core which will be impacted periodically by management operations. Timber sales and other management activities will continue on Blanchard outside the core over time.

“There’s a lot of land that’s still required to be managed, so logging operations and other kinds of operations will continue to occur periodically on Blanchard,” Hankey said.

Hankey says that a challenge is trying to help people understand that timber harvesting, when done right, can be a huge benefit to society.

He believes that a benefit from working forests is locally produced wood that is sustainably grown, processed in local mills and produces local jobs.

“We still wind up having to import a lot of the wood that we use. I just hope people really think about that mentality,” Hankey said. “Why always try to push it off onto someone else, when we can grow it here? We can do it well, we can do it forever and so there are benefits from having working forests here.”

According to Hankey, continued activities will follow forest practices, habitat conservation plans and the policy for sustainable forests. All timber sales will meet the rules, regulations and guidelines laid out on those documents.

And within the core, there will continue to be recreation maintenance that will go on, some trail improvement work and plans for some new bridges that will support the horse riding community and the mountain biking community as well as hikers.

Hankey hopes that the DNR recreation management will receive more funding to assist with maintenance. He said the DNR is going to communicate with the community to increase understanding of what’s happening on Blanchard Mountain.

After listening to multiple people involved in the project, it is clear that Blanchard wouldn’t have been saved if it weren’t for the support and advocacy from the community coming together under a common goal. Oyster Dome and its surroundings which includes forests, trails and wildlife will continue to remain preserved for generations to come.

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