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To Preserve It, Buy It

Tacoma News Tribune
August 13, 1998

By Matthew Brown and Jane S. Shaw

Chaining yourself to a tree in the forest just doesn’t work any more. Environmentalists who want to save forests have found a less confrontational way to achieve their goals–and a more effective one, too. They reach for their checkbooks.

Abandoning court battles and protests, a coalition of environmental groups in Washington state has agreed to pay to prevent logging of 24,000 acres of Loomis State Forest in north-central Washington. The deal marks the first time that private funds will be used to place a government-owned forest in a state conservation trust. While this isn’t the same as actually buying the land, the arrangement marks an about-face in the way environmentalists do business.

Mitch Friedman, director of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, one of the five groups involved in the agreement, heralds the purchase as "an exceptional opportunity for the people of Washington state." The land they intend to save from logging is the last roadless area in the 2 million-acre Loomis State Forest. The high-elevation lodge pole pine forest has stunning snow-capped peaks, clear streams, and an abundance of wildlife including grizzlies, fishers, and the Canadian lynx.

The Loomis is managed by Washington’s Common School Trust, which uses timber sales from the forest to make money for the state’s public schools. Time and again, the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance and other environmental groups have gone to court to block such sales. The new agreement ends the lawsuits and the logging, and also provides revenue for the school trust.

The coalition will pay the trust for the current generation of trees and will provide money to purchase an additional tract of land, elsewhere in the state, that is suitable for future logging. Jennifer Belcher, Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands, calls it a "really positive step" toward meeting both school funding and conservation goals.

The Loomis agreement sends the message that lobbying and litigation are no longer the most effective ways for environmentalists to achieve their goals. Other environmental groups have already started using the dollar as a conservation tool. For example:

In 1996, the Forest Guardians of New Mexico outbid ranchers for a 644-acre state grazing lease in a riparian area that had been damaged by cattle grazing. Once they obtained the lease, the Guardians removed livestock and planted willows and other vegetation along the stream banks to provide wildlife habitat.

Environmental groups in the West are leasing water from ranchers who would otherwise use it for irrigation. Keeping water in the stream helps trout and salmon spawn and protects fish during summer droughts. Using private donations, the Oregon Water Trust has leased water and kept it in 25 streams and rivers in Oregon. In one case, the trust purchased hay for a rancher so that he didn’t have to divert water to grow his own. Great Basin Land and Water in Nevada and the Washington Water Trust also lease water for environmental purposes, and traditional environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy have been expanding into water markets as well.

One thing that makes the Loomis Forest agreement significant is its size. The coalition will need as much as $20 million dollars by July 1999 to complete the deal. It is raising money right now from private sources, but if those efforts fail, the group may seek funds from the state legislature. This, however, would be unfortunate, since taxpayers would then be paying for land they already own.

Indeed, these new efforts must be put in perspective. While they are a positive step, they don’t yet qualify as free market environmentalism. The Loomis agreement uses private funds to move control of the forest from one government agency to another. To make the Common School Trust "whole," the group must buy other land that can be logged. So in the end there will be more land in state possession, not less.

Even so, the willingness of the environmentalists to come to the table with money is a major breakthrough. And, not surprisingly, it is state agencies, not federal ones, that have been receptive to the offers.

The federal agencies that control 20 percent of the nation’s land area remain on the sidelines. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are barred by law from the innovations that states have begun to adopt. A couple of years ago, the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance made a bid at a timber sale on the Okanogan National Forest, but the Forest Service replied that the area had to be logged. And the Bureau of Land Management has rebuffed efforts by the Nature Conservancy to retire grazing rights in Arizona.

Yet day after day these federal agencies are hampered by litigation at every turn. Instead of wasting valuable time and resources playing politics, environmentalists could be protecting species, saving open spaces, and setting an example for others to follow. Let us hope that Congress will free up the federal government to be innovators, too, just as the state agencies are proving to be. The Loomis Forest deal could be a milestone on a new road to environmental protection.

Matthew Brown and Jane S. Shaw are associates of PERC (the Political Economy Research Center) in Bozeman, Montana.

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