Bid To Save Loomis Faces July 1 Deadline -- The Effort To Save An Eastern Washington Wilderness Highlights A Cross-Cascades Values Clash

DISAPPOINTMENT PEAK, Okanogan County - From this lofty 7,202-foot peak, the state's last vestiges of mostly roadless forest roll out like a rumpled blanket.

Patches of snow amid the solid green expanses mark where the biggest state-owned forest already has been felled for timber.

Conservationists so far have raised more than $6 million to save the last pieces of wilderness in the 134,000-acre Loomis Forest from the saw and bulldozer.

The Loomis Forest Fund, a consortium of environmental organizations across the state, needs to raise a total of $13.1 million to buy the northern and southern parcels of the forest - totaling 25,000 acres - by the end of the month. On July 1, a moratorium on logging the parcels will expire unless a state board acts to extend it. It's possible, however, that the state could extend the deadline beyond July 1.

The Loomis Forest Fund is a do-it-yourself wilderness-protection campaign that is both the largest effort of its kind in Washington, and part of a national trend in which people are taking direct action to save cherished landscapes: They are buying them.

The Loomis effort enjoys widespread support west of the Cascades, where everyone from high-tech moguls to schoolchildren is donating money to the dream.

But the project also spotlights two festering problems.

The conservation campaign is a flare-up in an ongoing culture war between the urban, rapidly growing west side of the Cascades and the east side, where farmers, ranchers and orchardists view conservation as a threat to their way of life.

The campaign to purchase a forest to save it from logging also points to the growing need for alternative ways to fund school construction.

Washington pays for K-12 school construction, in part, by logging its school-trust lands such as the Loomis Forest. But the fast-growing population in Washington wants both outdoor recreation opportunities and quality schools for its children.

As wildlife habitat and open space face greater pressure from a growing population, some question whether cutting down trees on public land is the answer.

"We should not be trading stumps for schools," said Mitch Friedman of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, a Bellingham group helping to coordinate the Loomis fund-raising effort.

Area is rich in wildlife

The Loomis Forest is a pristine realm, where the wide-open spaces are big enough to watch shadows of clouds gambol across entire river drainages.

It is home to the largest population of lynx in the Lower 48. Other rare carnivores, including grizzly bear, wolverine, fisher and pine marten, live here as well. Moose, deer and black bear roam the woods and can be spied feasting in meadows lush with spring browse.

There are about 17 miles of roads in the parcels slated for conservation, and some clear-cuts at their edges. But most of the land is undisturbed.

The landscape ranges from rolling meadows to sun- and wind-blasted peaks with views north to Canada and west to the North Cascades. There are sagebrush bench lands lit with wildflowers and deep-green spruce, fir and lodgepole pine forests.

This eastside forest is different from the mossy, cathedral-like groves westsiders are used to. Much of this forest is lodgepole pine, standing no higher than 60 feet, with some trunks no bigger than a man's forearm. Some of the pines grow as close as hair, which helps to explain the nickname "doghair" for the densest lodgepole stands.

Within the forest, the light softens, with blue shadows moving in lacy patterns on brilliant white snow. The pines shine with sunlight, and cool air billows up from fresh snow-melt creeks.

In north-central Washington at the Canadian border, the Loomis is adjacent to the federally protected Pasayten Wilderness, itself a gateway to North Cascades National Park.

Protecting the Loomis would expand a band of wilderness that stretches across the border into Canada. Animals like the lynx and grizzly bear need large, intact wilderness areas for denning, travel and hunting.

Mark Skatrud, a Loomis carpenter and wildlife tracker who has led the preservation campaign, works long hours during the summer so he can spend four and five days a week in the deep snow of the forest in winter, looking for animal tracks.

A passionate advocate for wildlife, he has compiled a detailed database of track sightings, and even photographed the reclusive lynx on the prowl in the forest, using unmanned, motion-triggered cameras.

The presence of so much rare wildlife makes the Loomis special to him, Skatrud said.

"In so many other places, we are trying to reintroduce these animals. Well, we've already got them. All we have to do is keep their home intact.

"Having the knowledge that this wildlife is here is what motivates me. This is the last of the state's unroaded wilderness, and our last chance to protect it. It's our responsibility. We have to act."

Preservation groups are busy

Nationally and locally, the land-preservation business is booming.

There were 17 conservation groups throughout Washington in 1988 that protected a total of 7,602 acres through private purchase. Ten years later, the ranks of local land trusts grew to 29 groups. They purchased a total of 27,230 acres, and activity continues to increase, said Elizabeth Bell of the Land Trust Alliance in Seattle.

Acquisitions are expected to double this year.

Between 1988 and 1998, local and regional land trusts nationally protected 4.7 million acres of land, an area larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. That represents a 135 percent increase over the 2 million acres protected by land trusts by the end of 1988.

That doesn't count lands purchased by national groups such as the Nature Conservancy.

"People are realizing they can protect the things they care about, and that's an incredibly powerful idea," Bell said. "They don't need a government agency to do it, or a regulation - they can do it themselves."

Because the Loomis is publicly owned, the mechanics of buying and preserving it are unusual.

Under a deal struck with the state, land within the Loomis Forest slated for conservation still would be owned by the state and managed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Within the two parcels marked for conservation, all existing recreational uses, including snowmobiling, horsepacking and hiking will continue, and cattlemen still will be able to use the land for grazing. But logging and road-building will be outlawed permanently, a bitter pill for some. Outside those parcels, logging will be allowed; environmentalists agreed to forgo their right to sue to block timber sales on those remaining acres.

Many see it as meddling

"People are extremely unhappy about it," said Ed Peery, an apple grower and chief of the Fire Department in the town of Loomis. "It's being done by people who don't live here and don't have relatives here and haven't for 100 years.

"Over here, we feel like we are the playground for the west side, and they think we are just in their way. This is our livelihood over here. The west side should just have their own state. Then they can bother each other instead of us," Peery said.

"The majority of us aren't out here to trash the land; we just want to be able to use it."

Putting so many acres of trees off-limits to logging is incomprehensible to many used to making their living from the land.

"It's two different cultures, and they are colliding," Peery said.

John Fitzmorris, an independent trucker from Priest River, Idaho, was hauling freshly cut logs last week near the boundary of the northern parcel identified for preservation.

"That's wood that's going to waste," he said. "What do they consider beautiful: That, or letting someone come in and making a living, and utilizing this?

"This is how I have been making my living for 35 years. I don't have any desire to go back to school to change."

Some of the logs were destined for Idaho, where they will be milled into lumber. The smaller logs are to be chipped in Oroville and will be used for paper, pulp and plywood filler, Fitzmorris said.

Logger Roy Brodmerkle of Sandpoint, Idaho, a father of two with a third child on the way, said he saw no point in preserving a piece of the wilderness for posterity.

As he took a break from sawing down a chunk of the forest, he shrugged his bare, tattooed shoulders dusted with wood chips and took a long pull from his lemon-lime soda.

The preservation campaign is "a waste of ground, if you ask me. The more they set aside, the more I'd go hungry. Besides, they need to have something to build their little latte stands and tourist attractions out of," he said of logging critics.

Ranchers remain suspicious about whether their grazing rights will be unaffected if the Loomis is put into conservation.

"What will happen when my permits are up for renewal in 2002? I'll bet you anything there will be a lot more restrictions," said Dean Buzzard of Loomis, who grazes about 200 head of cattle in the forest.

The preservation campaign has put Skatrud, the carpenter and tracker, at odds with many of his neighbors.

He says at times the conflict with his opponents has gotten ugly. "I was coming down a mountain road with a load of firewood and discovered someone had loosened the lug nuts on the wheels of my truck. It was a warning."

Peery believes it. "There are people over here upset enough about this to do that."

Skatrud remains committed. Since about January, he has been taking potential donors for hikes in the Loomis and making fund-raising pitches in Seattle.

He believes deeply in the value of wildlife habitat and wilderness for its own sake, and that people need to stay connected to nature.

"Who even knows what phase the moon is in anymore? Or if the creeks are running high?

"I love knowing that," Skatrud said. "There's an order to the natural world that has nothing to do with us. It gives people comfort that there's something bigger and more lasting than our little human lives, and we can be part of it by coming out and being a part of that greatness.

"Even people who can't get out there want to know it's still there, and that someone is protecting it."

Yet schools need money

The fight over the Loomis also illustrates the need to modernize the way the state pays for school construction, some say.

The state's population growth is putting increasing demands on public land for recreation and open space, even as the school-aged population increases and puts more pressure on public-land managers to cut state forests.

"Who knew the population would grow like it has?" said Kaleen Cottingham, deputy commissioner for public lands at the state Department of Natural Resources.

"We need an alternative source of funding for schools to take the pressure off. In the next 40 years, the state's population is going to double, and the people coming here don't want to see clear-cuts. They want to go hiking, and they want to go outdoors."

But efforts in the Legislature to reform school-funding policies so far have foundered on disagreements over whether the trust lands are being logged too aggressively or not aggressively enough.

While the Loomis preservation campaign is a battle they are gladly fighting, it's one they shouldn't have to, conservationists say. They argue that the public should not have to buy its own trees to save them from the saw.

"One hundred years ago, when forests were abundant, it made sense to use them to fund schools," said Friedman, of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. "Today, forests are one of our most valuable resources. It compromises our students to pit their education against their heritage."

------------------------------ The Loomis Forest Fund project ------------------------------

-- Total money raised, as of May 21: About $6.6 million.

Amount needed: $13.1 million.

Deadline: July 1; extension possible.

Number of contributors so far: Nearly 4,000 from all over the state.

-- Breakdown of contributions so far:

Gifts from steering committee to kick-start campaign: $836,651.

Gifts from foundations, including environmental groups: $744,000.

Gifts from individuals: More than $5 million.

Number of acres identified for conservation: 25,000.

Acres preserved through contributions: 12,002, at $550 per acre.

-- Loomis Forest Fund:

600 First Avenue; Suite 416; Seattle, WA 98104.