October 1, 2009

Public lands swapped for private profit

Print More

KUOW 94.9 FM recently aired a story — reported by yours truly — about a controversial land exchange in Port Ludlow on the Olympic Peninsula. 

The Washington state Department of Natural Resources wants to trade thick forests  around Port Ludlow for Pope Resources clearcuts in the Olympic foothills. 

The story spotlights the Port Ludlow exchange, which is one small part of a larger DNR strategy under fire from conservationists and citizens, as detailed by a longer Web version of the KUOW story.

The Washington state DNR manages 5.6 million acres of public property, including forests, grasslands, croplands, aquatic and commercial land.   But the agency also gets rid of public forests via land exchanges with private companies. 

The DNR’s state-wide strategy pulls public ownership — and protection –from scattered lowland forests at risk of redevelopment due to nearby urban or highway sprawl.  In return, the DNR accepts swathes of timberland higher up in the mountains;  the buffers between the land and development pressures make it easy for the DNR to create big parcels of land for future timber harvests.

While the trades reduce the DNR’s management costs, they also allow older growth public forests to be rezoned and redeveloped for private profit — at a time when school, state and county budgets are hurting.  The state’s Constitution mandates that the DNR revenues produced by selling the public’s natural resources — such as timber or shellfish — support public schools, state institutions, and county services. 

Though the DNR’s land has belonged to the public since statehood, the public doesn’t get the financial benefit of their land’s redevelopment — only the environmental cost. 

That’s because the state’s appraisal of its land’s value is based on the notion that the land will remain in commercial forestry forever — even when the company pursuing the land wishes to rezone and redevelop it. 

Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark says he doesn’t want the state to rezone its property itself because he doesn’t want to facilitate the conversion of forests into subdivisions.  Doing so would deprive the private sector of a steady and expected profit stream, said Natural Resources boardmember Bruce Bare, who also said the state isn’t agile enough to capture the full value of the public property it disposes of through exchanges.

But deferring the rezones to the private sector also allows the state to sidestep a review of the net environmental effect of its exchanges, which lead to the destruction of some of the state’s last lowland forests.

Some communities have pulled together public and private funds to buy private forest development rights, assuring that the land will support trees and wildlife rather than buildings.  The state legislature has set aside millions for just that purpose — even as the state DNR sends comparable public forests into redevelopment by the private sector.

— Kristen Young

KUOW is training InvestigateWest reporters to produce radio news, allowing our nonprofit to add the broadcast capacity needed to reach more people.

One thought on “Public lands swapped for private profit

  1. You may find the following information interesting. DNR is required by the State Constitution and RCW 79.11.250 to subdivide all lands within 2 miles of any city limits prior to sale. By trading the land DNR claims it is not a sale and no platting is required. If their responsability is to the schools, shouldn’t they maximise the value of the land?

    Washington State Constitution
    ARTICLE XVI
    SCHOOL AND GRANTED LANDS
    SECTION 4 HOW MUCH MAY BE OFFERED IN CERTAIN CASES –PLATTING OF. No more than one hundred and sixty (160) acres of any granted lands of the state shall be offered for sale in one parcel, and all lands within the limits of any incorporated city or within two miles of the boundary of any incorporated city where the valuation of such land shall be found by appraisement to exceed one hundred dollars ($100) per acre shall, before the same be sold, be platted into lots and blocks of not more than five acres in a block, and not more than one block shall be offered for sale in one parcel.

    RCW 79.11.250
    Lands subject to platting.

    The department shall cause all unplatted state lands, within the limits of any incorporated city or town, or within two miles of the boundary thereof, where the valuation of such lands is found by appraisement to exceed one hundred dollars per acre, to be platted into lots and blocks, of not more than five acres in a block, before the same are offered for sale, and not more than one block shall be offered for sale in one parcel. The department may designate or describe any such plat by name, or numeral, or as an addition to such city or town, and, upon the filing of any such plat, it shall be sufficient to describe the lands, or any portion thereof, embraced in such plat, according to the designation prescribed by the department. Such plats shall be made in duplicate, and when properly authenticated by the department, one copy thereof shall be filed in the office of the department and one copy in the office of the county auditor in which the lands are situated, and the auditor shall receive and file such plats without compensation or fees and make record thereof in the same manner as required by law for the filing and recording of other plats in the auditor’s office.

    In selling lands subject to the provisions of Article 16, section 4, of the state Constitution, the department will be permitted to sell the land within the required land subdivision without being required to complete the construction of streets, utilities, and such similar things as may be required by any local government entity in the instance of the platting of private or other property within their area of jurisdiction. However, no construction will be permitted on lands so sold until the purchaser or purchasers collectively comply with all of the normal requirements for platting.