Future of the Upper Teanaway subject of debate
The afternoon sun lights up the Teanaway River as it passes under the bridge at Teanaway Road east of Cle Elum on Tuesday. Brian Myrick / Daily Record

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CLE ELUM — A dozen wild turkeys, seemingly oblivious to cattle grazing nearby, pecked away at the ground in a pasture just down the road and across the street from Violet Burke’s home in the Teanaway late Sunday afternoon.

A pickup, its bed piled high with camping gear and bicycles, rattled down the Teanaway Road. Farther on, two women on horseback made their way down a trail on a hillside above the Teanaway River.

For 70 of her 83 years, the Teanaway has been Burke’s home — and her family’s playground — a place to hunt, hike, camp and fish.

But Burke knows her beloved Teanaway may be headed for change.

The American Forest Land Co. LLC, which manages 46,000 acres in the area for American Forest Resources, the company which owns the land, has requested a planning process to guide long-term land use for the area. The county has embarked on an 18-month effort to develop a plan that would shape the future development of the area. (American Forest Resources was formerly known as U.S. Timberland, the company that bought the land from Boise Cascade in 1999.)

American Forest Land Co. argues that the timber industry is dead in Kittitas County and that it needs to move ahead with other plans for other use of the property. It wants to have what is now forest land re-designated so that it can be developed. Government regulations to protect the spotted owl mean much of the land can’t be logged. Timber beetle infestations also have affected the forests, officials say.

Opponents argue a move to change the land use could damage the Upper Teanaway irreparably, potentially jeopardizing a natural resource enjoyed by both local residents and visitors to the area as well as potentially affecting the area’s rural character.

Critics say investors made a bad decision and now hope to recoup losses by developing the land. But the forest land designation shouldn’t be changed simply to accommodate a bad business decision, opponents say.

And assurance from AFLC Vice President Wayne Schwandt that the company’s future plans for the area aim to be environmentally sensitive draws skeptical reaction from some area residents.

For some, Schwandt himself is a question mark, based on the fact that he was managing director of the Bellingham-based Trillium Corp. at a time when the company was involved in an effort to log 600,000 acres of ecologically sensitive land in southern Chile. The project met a storm of environmental protest as well as legal challenges and was eventually abandoned. Schwandt says a study done at California State University at Long Beach later found that the plan was, in his words, “sustainable and well thought out” and that it was Trillium’s financial problems that ended the project.

Two meetings to gather public comment on what the future of the Upper Teanaway subarea should look like have already been held. A third is scheduled Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Swauk-Teanaway Grange on West Ballard Hill Road.

“We have concluded that timber has indeed essentially left our community,” Schwandt told an audience of about 100 people two weeks ago. Citing a study done by the University of Washington that found that from 1985 to the present the timber harvest in Kittitas County has dropped 94 percent, he said the company’s view is that “the effective end of commercial forestry in Kittitas County has arrived.”

In view of that, the company needs to find some other way to use the land. Plans could include residential development, a non-residential resort and a commercial development “that relies on brain power jobs”, he said.

The property could be sold off in 80-acre parcels. But he said the company favors a more orchestrated approach.

But “we, as a group, are totally opposed to carving up the property into lots and selling them. It makes no sense,” he said. Rather than do that, he said, “another way to do it is to concentrate and restrict development in one area,” a plan he said would leave the “vast majority” of land available for wildlife, natural habitat and recreation.

He told the audience the kinds of things that are important to them are also important to the company.

“Don’t always think of the very large landowner as being the big, mean bully,” he said. “The large landowner has the capacity to solve problems that small landowners couldn’t even when acting in unison.”

He also made a promise. “I will state unequivocally there is no plan for a gated community,” he said.

Noting that water is a significant concern, he said the company already has “significant adjudicated rights” and suggested that the company might look for ways to capture spring run-off to meter out over the summer. He said potentially the company can help create more water for the community.

Schwandt’s assurances aside, there is no shortage of public concern.

Kelli Conner, who with her husband Ed operates Conner Custom Lumber, a sawmill down the road from Burke, has been vehement in her opposition.

She told the audience at the meeting two weeks ago she believes development is inevitable. The community needs to figure out how best to make that work for it by insisting on road and utility improvements, she said.

Ellensburg’s Jim Halstrom, who uses the area recreationally, is among those unswayed by Schwandt’s arguments. The area needs to stay forest land, he said.

“This is a tremendous natural resource that is used extensively by a lot of people,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in private property rights. But we’re not talking about private property. We’re talking about natural resource land.”

Natural resource lands, he noted, are “subject to special treatment — and subject to limitations.”

If the area is developed, there will be impacts on water and recreation opportunities as well as significant costs to the county, he said. While he understands the company’s economic situation, he said everyone in the room would welcome a chance to revisit a bad decision but they usually don‘t get it. 

“The life of a forest isn’t measured in years,” he cautioned.  “It’s measured in generations. You can’t un-ring the bell. When it’s gone, it’s gone.”

For her part, Burke, who has lived in her current home since 1952 and says it’s where she wants to die, is philosophical.

“The owners have been good to the people of the Upper County all these years,” she said this week. “Nobody is at fault with what is happening in this country. Timber is worth nothing. I don’t know what the company is going to do but I come from the old school and think they do have a right to do what they think is best.”


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