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The Seattle Times: "Clear-cut looms between Squak, Cougar mountains"

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March 1, 2013 -- Park advocates and May Creek residents hope to prevent clear-cutting of nearly 200 acres between Squak Mountain and Cougar Mountain parks.

By Keith Ervin

Seattle Times staff reporter

More than two decades after battles over logging in spotted-owl habitat began to die down, plans to clear-cut trees next to a county park near Issaquah have ignited a new controversy.

As with most anything having to do with real estate, it boils down to location, location, location.

King County officials say they want to consider buying 216 acres from the logging company that bought the land in December, but it isn’t clear they would be able to strike a deal before the chain saws go into action.

Park advocates and officials are interested in the property for a variety of reasons: it includes the headwaters of flood-prone May Creek, it’s close to Seattle and other cities, and it would improve access to trails on Squak Mountain.

The site also borders the Cougar/Squak corridor, county-owned parkland that provides a wildlife connection between Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park and Squak Mountain State Park.

Oh — and the property is next to a hillside of suburban homes and a valley of rural horse farms whose owners aren’t used to living with big logging operations.

The owner of the Eatonville-based Erickson Logging company says he’s willing to sell the property for a fair price, but can’t wait long for a deal.

If the company clear-cuts 195 acres of its property, as it is proposing to do, many landowners along May Creek fear that would bring more water and silt into the stream, worsening a decades-long flooding problem.

Part of the Erickson property was logged by then-owner Burlington Northern early in the 20th century. The remainder was a private campground, part of which is now a recreational-vehicle park.

Battles over logging have become less frequent in King County in recent years as environmentalists have come to see tree farms as preferable to residential sprawl.

The county has encouraged forestry by buying development rights on tens of thousands of acres of forest, and the state and county both grow and cut trees in the Interstate 90 corridor.

Flooding concerns

During Helen Farrington’s 15 years in her small house below the logging site, she’s seen her backyard and nearby Highway 900 repeatedly turn into lakes.

When a Pineapple Express moves in, she often leaves work early to clean out the ditches above her house.

The family’s wooden footbridge across May Creek has been washed downstream countless times.

Those nuisances became a crisis a few years ago when raging stormwater undercut a culvert in her rural neighborhood and the road collapsed under the weight of a truck. Farrington’s family and five others spent nearly $100,000 to build a larger, fish-friendly culvert.

With the better culvert and closure of a nearby quarry, Farrington said, the once-muddy creek has “perfect spawning gravel, we’ve built back up the invertebrates in there and the food chain has restored itself.”

She photographed five spawning coho salmon last fall — more than she had seen in the previous 15 years.

But with the news that Erickson Logging applied for a state forest-practices permit to log the mountain above her, she began to worry again about the creek and the larger new culvert.

“There will be this massive amount of water. We’re right in the path of it,” Farrington said as she gazed at the tree line above her house.

Mary Celigoy lives two miles downstream on the 65-acre dairy-turned-horse-farm where she grew up. As May Creek has become more silted, her pasture has been covered by water, often into June, forcing her to buy more hay for the horses she boards.

“It’s a scary thought that we could end up with more water than we do,” Celigoy said. Ironically, she said, King County plans to remove silt from the creek this summer, after 20 years of debate and discussion — possibly at the same time the creek’s headwater forest is logged.

Kurt Erickson, whose logging company bought 216 acres at a bankruptcy sale in late December for $2 million, said three-quarters of a mile of logging roads would be built with state-approved drainage systems.

Asked if the logging could be done without causing downstream flooding, he said, “Yeah, that’s our belief.”

A logging permit could be issued within 30 days.

Bids to buy property

The Issaquah Alps Trails Club is prodding King County to buy the property.

“We’re not challenging the rights of the logger to follow the law and do the logging,” said Trails Club President David Kappler. “We just don’t think that’s the highest and best use for this property.”

James Bush, a spokesman for County Executive Dow Constantine, has told interested citizens the county “hopes to work with Mr. Erickson to conserve his land and bring it into public ownership.” But, Bush warned, it might take years to accumulate the needed funds, and Erickson might log some or all of his land before then.

Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn also has endorsed a county purchase of the property.

Erickson said he is willing to sell the property for a price that includes the value of the timber. “I’ve tried to allow them time. Basically they keep coming back and saying they can’t get the money together,” he said.

“I’m not going to sit around and hold it for two years or something while they make up their mind. We can’t afford to do that,” Erickson said. “This is a small business that we run. We risk things. We put collateral up, and we make business decisions, and we have to go forward.”

If no one buys the property before he logs it, Erickson said, he may later sell it to a developer or develop it himself. The previous owner proposed to build a 46-home subdivision, but defaulted on loans before final approval.

A citizens oversight committee will recommend to Constantine and the County Council in May whether purchase of the Erickson property should be among the projects paid for through the county’s open-space acquisition fund.

Doug Schindler, deputy director of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, said the property is intriguing because it’s adjacent to a park, would widen the Cougar-Squak parks connection, help protect May Creek, and improve public access to Squak Mountain.

But because there are many other worthy purchases that could be made, advocates must show it’s the best use of public dollars, Schindler said. “We as the public can’t afford to buy everything.”