Engaging Communities In Conservation by Joe Kane

Two years ago, the Nisqually Land Trust was called upon to help solve a crisis: A timber company had permits to log a heavily forested ridge along the highway through Ashford, Washington, the mountain hamlet at the main entrance to Mount Rainier National Park.  Ashford’s economy relies on tourism, and a two-hundred-acre clearcut visible from the center of town wasn’t a vista likely to put “heads in beds,” as the local innkeepers put it.

We convinced the timber company to hold off for three months, and at the eleventh hour won a $1.4 million Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund grant to buy out the clearcut. But that didn’t completely solve the problem: The listed species the grant was intended to protect—spotted owls and marbled murrelets—were the same species that many locals blamed for killing the area’s forestproducts industry.

To make habitat protection work long-term, we had to do more than simply lock up a piece of land. We had to be sure the community was fully on board. With support from a Defenders of Wildlife Living Lands Biodiversity Grant, we began developing a management plan based on the three pillars of sustainability: environment, community and economy.

To lay the foundation for that plan, our sister organization, the Nisqually River Council, organized monthly community forums in Ashford. Everything was on the table. Ashford needed public bathrooms for the 1.5 million visitors who came through town every year on their way to the national park. Ashford needed a performing-arts center to keep those visitors in town for longer than it took to relieve themselves on the neighbors’ lawn. Ashford needed help keeping its elementary school open. Above all, Ashford needed jobs.

Out of these forums grew the Mount Rainier Gateway Initiative, a 5-phase, multi-partner effort that calls for the permanent protection of 4500 acres of privately held timberlands that surround Ashford. The Initiative proposes to secure a forested wildlife corridor that will connect large expanses of protected state and federal lands. The Initiative will also secure the scenic vistas so essential to Ashford’s economic well-being. And it will revive working forest lands and manage them for ecologically sustainable timber production, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, that we hope will anchor a new kind of forest economy.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, with the support of the River Council and the Land Trust, Ashford gained state funding for its performing-arts center. Those public bathrooms are scheduled for completion in 2009. The school is still open. And last July, the Land Trust won $5.6 million for Phase Two of the Initiative, which—if our negotiations are successful—will permanently protect another 922 acres.

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