With Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature last week, a plan to permanently conserve recreation lands in the state forest on Blanchard Mountain is one step closer to being realized.
The plan is to transfer the trust fund status of forests on Blanchard to forests in other areas of Skagit County. This would ensure the local beneficiaries of those Blanchard trust lands don’t lose timber revenue.
Trust lands managed by Natural Resources on Blanchard Mountain benefit local taxing districts, including the Burlington-Edison School District, Skagit County Emergency Medical Services and cemetery districts.
Skagit County officials, although in support of preserving what’s called the recreational core of Blanchard Mountain, raised concerns several years ago about ensuring those taxing districts don’t lose timber revenue that supports their public services in the process of preserving the land.
The effort to protect the Blanchard core — an area that includes the Samish Overlook, Oyster Dome trail and backcountry camping areas at Lily and Lizard lakes — has been underway for more than a decade.
Stakeholders in 2007 agreed to a Blanchard Forest Strategy in which Natural Resources would purchase forest lands elsewhere to make up for timber revenue lost through conservation, but limited state funding to purchase replacement lands delayed the process.
The Legislature provided $10 million in the 2018 capital budget to complete a land transfer to conserve the Blanchard core, but it was unable to complete the transfer that year due to its inability to ensure local taxing districts would not lose revenue.
Unlike trust land transfers Natural Resources has completed in the past to swap lands in the Common School Trust program that benefits public schools, replacing general state trust lands is uncharted territory.
The move, conceptualized by Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, and former Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, required the state’s adoption of new rules to allow counties to determine which local taxing districts to give trust land timber revenue in the event of a land transfer or exchange.
Those rules were included in the bill Inslee recently signed into law.
“The bill allows counties to distribute funds derived from state forest lands acquired by exchange within the same county,” Natural Resources spokesman Kenny Ocker said.
The bill had the support of Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Samish Island, and Sens. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, and Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes.
“The bill is the final action the state needs to take to ensure the land transfer occurs as planned to complete the important, collaborative work that has occurred in the past decade with our trust beneficiaries, the timber industry, and other stakeholders,” Ocker said. “This bill gives Skagit County the flexibility it needs to distribute trust land revenue.”
The Legislature passed the bill in mid-April.
“With this bill, we are now able to protect the iconic Blanchard Mountain for generations to come,” state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who oversees Natural Resources, said in a prepared statement.
The bill gives those involved through June 30, 2020, to complete the transfers needed to preserve the Blanchard core.
Meanwhile, the Board of Natural Resources approved May 7 the $496,000 purchase of a 90-acre property on the eastern edge of Blanchard. That land will be put into the state’s land bank to generate timber revenue for trust beneficiaries in the future.
The property is along Barrel Springs Road and has a network of logging roads that will improve Natural Resource’s access to the rest of the state forestland on Blanchard, Ocker said. It will also allow for development of more recreation in that area.
It brings the expansion of state forest land around Blanchard Mountain in recent years to about 370 acres.