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30,000 acres in Nisqually watershed may change hands

9:20 am November 1st, 2012

A plan is in place for a community forest in the upper Nisqually watershed. Now it needs a community.

The Nisqually Land Trust is deep into a conceptual business model for the proposed Nisqually Community Forest that would be owned and managed by a yet-to-be-determined municipal entity or non-profit organization. Approximately 20,000 to 30,000 acres would be removed from private ownership and placed under the new control with a primary goal of benefitting the environment.

Officials of the Land Trust and other agencies involved in the project have scheduled two public meetings to explain the proposal and, they hope, generate community-based support. The meetings are next week – Nov. 5 at the Fire District 23 station in Ashford (29815 State Route 706) from 7 to 8:30 p.m., and Nov. 7 at Eatonville Middle School, also from 7 to 8:30. Meetings to be held early next year in Tacoma and Olympia will be announced later.

The National Park Service, Nisqually River Foundation and Northwest Natural Resources Group also are co-hosts of the meetings, said Joe Kane, executive director of the Land Trust.

Timber-growing land in the upper Nisqually watershed is considered some of the best in the world, according to Kane. Much of it is privately owned and managed for the financial gain of out-of-state investors. A forestry investment management group will be selling the land in the next 10 years as part of timed investment portfolios, creating a rare opportunity to change control of the forestland perhaps forever.

“We want to be ready and bring this land into watershed protection,” Kane said.

The cost of buying the land from the private owners could reach $90 million. Kane believes the financing can be put together and that the first purchases could occur in 2014.

For the past year, plans for the community forest have been coming together during meetings of local businesses, individuals, government agencies and non-profit groups. Backers of the market-based proposal say it would create a working forest that would provide forest products-related jobs while also strengthening the efforts of environmental organizations such as the Land Trust to preserve rivers and protect land for salmon populations, wildlife and recreation.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” Kane said. “We have ideas that we want to share with our communities, and we want their feedback.”.

Since 1999, the Nisqually Land Trust has acquired and managed 3,500 acres in the Nisqually River watershed in order to protect water, wildlife and the natural beauty. A potential core of the proposed community forest includes about 2,000 acres of permanently protected wildlife habitat in an area between Ashford and Mount Rainier National Park. That initiative, with support locally from private timberland owners and Pierce County, state, tribal and federal agencies, has raised $10.6 million for habitat acquisition in the past four years.

Congressional legislation in 2008, known as the Farm Bill, created the U.S. Forest Service’s Community Forest Program to fund purchases of land for community forests. Conservation organizations such as the Trust for Public Land and the Conservation Fund, are supporting local efforts to set aside community forests.

In addition, the Land Trust’s Board of Directors had Kane apply for a National Park Service grant to help the planning of the upper Nisqually community forest. There’s no direct money in the grant, but technical assistance for local planning comes from the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) program. The planning process is expected to continue the rest of this year.

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