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Fundraising begins; conservancy and Pope Resources unveil option agreement on 7,000 acres in North Kitsap

PORT GAMBLE — Cascade Land Conservancy has 18 months to raise money to buy some or all of Pope Resources’ 7,000 acres of North Kitsap forest and 1.8 miles of shoreline along Port Gamble Bay.

The agreement between the conservancy and Pope Resources is being unveiled Wednesday afternoon at the Port Gamble Pavilion. Participants include Port Gamble S’Klallam Chairman Jeromy Sullivan; Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman; Kitsap County Commissioner Rob Gelder; Jon Rose, president of Olympic Property Group, Pope’s real estate arm; and leaders of the Cascade Land Conservancy and Great Peninsula Conservancy.

“This is a huge deal,” Rose said. “It’s the first time in my memory that the biggest land owner in the county, two tribes and county government are all working together on something, cooperatively.” The conservancy and Pope announced the proposed purchase and sale in early September; Wednesday’s event celebrates the terms reached and the beginning of fundraising.

If successful, the purchase would preserve from development the land and 1.8 miles of waterfront on the west side of Port Gamble Bay, keep it available for public access, and free Olympic Property Group to concentrate on making Port Gamble a more viable year-round destination.

Rose envisions the construction of up to 200 homes and a hotel on Port Gamble’s 120 acres. He also envisions redeveloping the old mill site into an environmental learning center. He said his company will be filing a project application with the county to develop Port Gamble according to current zoning standards. He said the development could be done by Olympic Property Group or a new owner.

If fundraising is successful, the purchase would accomplish what Olympic Property Group had hoped to accomplish through the North Kitsap Legacy Partnership, which fizzled after County Commissioner Steve Bauer, a proponent of the partnership, resigned. Olympic Property Group proposed giving the 7,000 acres to Kitsap County in exchange for denser development rights in Port Gamble. That proposal was opposed by Port Gamble S’Klallam, which was concerned about the possible impacts of development on Port Gamble Bay. And county officials were concerned about the cost of maintaining 7,000 acres of public land and trails.

The latest effort is “just going a different route that requires more public finances and fundraising,” Rose said in an earlier interview.

The acreage consists of five segments: 4,000 acres south of the Port Gamble townsite, 2,000 acres in Hansville, 650 acres in the Miller Bay watershed, 560 acres along the Port Gamble Bay shoreline, and 366 acres adjacent to Heritage Park on Miller Bay Road.

It’s not known how much all or any segment of the acreage will cost. Once the fundraising period is completed, appraisals will be done on each segment.

Michelle Connor, executive vice president and chief program officer of Cascade Land Conservancy, said the shoreline acreage will be the priority. In separate interviews, she and Rose said it will be easier to raise money for the shoreline acreage, because there is a variety of grants designated for purchase or protection of coastal and nearshore areas.

The upland acreage is more complicated. “It has tens of millions of dollars of real estate and timber value, and there’s not any one place you can go to fund this type of purchase,” Connor said. She envisions “some type of financing strategy combined with grants” to purchase the upland acreage.

The agreement unveiled Wednesday represents the largest single conservation effort in Puget Sound, according to the conservancy. Each year, these lands are enjoyed by thousands of residents and other users from the Puget Sound region for a variety of outdoor activities, such as biking, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, and wildlife viewing. The trails contained on the acreage are included in the North Kitsap String of Pearls trails network, which is part of a larger trails network that stretches across the state.

The agreement means Cascade Land Conservancy can now work with local officials, organizations and key stakeholders such as tribal governments to develop an outreach strategy to attract funding to acquire the property, conservancy president Gene Duvernoy said in a press release.

“If our efforts are successful, we can look forward to spectacular natural forestland and shoreline that serve as the backbone to a regional land and water trail system, giving residents and visitors educational and recreational opportunities extending throughout Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas.”

Duvernoy said the influx of tourism, support for shellfish operations, the attractiveness of the area for businesses seeking to recruit employees and the significant cost savings from not serving additional rural development could bolster the economy of Kitsap County in years ahead.

Pope Resources president David Nunes said the conservancy brings “an impressive track record to the table in terms of pulling together communities to resolve difficult land use conflicts. We look forward to working with (the conservancy) to come up with a public ownership solution for these special lands.”

Since its founding in 1989, the conservancy has grown into the largest land conservation and stewardship organization in Washington state, leading efforts to conserve more than 173,000 acres of forests, farms, parks, shorelines, and natural areas.

However, Nunes warned that if funding doesn’t materialize for the North Kitsap acreage, “we will need to close this chapter and proceed with alternatives to divest ourselves of these land holdings.”

Port Gamble Bay is part of an interconnected ecological system that supports wildlife species in Hood Canal, Admiralty Inlet and central Puget Sound. The bay and forests are home to endangered and threatened salmon species, critical stocks of forage fish, and important habitat and migration corridors for many bird species and marine mammals.

With its geographical and cultural connections, Port Gamble S’Klallam has made conservation of the bay a top priority, Chairman Jeromy Sullivan said in a press release.

“We have an obligation to our ancestors, our elders and our youth to ensure that Port Gamble Bay will be restored and protected for the future,” Sullivan said. “It means a lot to us to be joining in this effort by the landowner and others from all around Puget Sound to try to conserve these lands

S’Klallam and Suquamish leaders say the tidelands can provide abundant natural resources. They envision a community shellfish farm under the auspices of a cooperative effort led by the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, in conjunction with Port Gamble S’Klallam, Suquamish, Olympic Property Group and the community.  “This is a great opportunity,” Forsman said in a press release. “But it is also a great challenge that will take hard work and unity among everyone involved. We all have to go into this with the right spirit to get it done.”

Company has owned North Kitsap acreage since 1849

Olympic Property Group is the real estate arm of Pope Resources; Olympic Resource Management is the timber arm. Pope Resources spun off from Pope & Talbot, which was founded in 1849. The company established mills at Port Gamble and Port Ludlow, and modeled the town of Port Gamble on the owners’ hometown of East Machias, Maine. The Port Ludlow mill closed in 1935, the Port Gamble mill in 1995. Pope & Talbot went bankrupt in 2008.

All property in Port Gamble is owned by Pope Resources. The village is a national historic landmark and is a venue for athletic events, car shows, festivals, and weddings. Its historical museum was designed by the same designer of the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria. But the village does not make money; Rose said Olympic Property Group subsidizes it for as much as $750,000 a year.

Rose said Pope Resources’ main business is “growing trees”; company assets include 114,000 acres of timberland and investments in 61,000 more, according to the company's website. Pope also owns 2,500 acres of development property, including Port Gamble. Its timberlands are harvested, reforested and managed.

“In (North Kitsap), we have too many people living around the tree farm right now. There are 70,000 people around it and not too many like the tree-farming business,” Rose said in an earlier interview. He said Pope Resources’ recent land acquisitions have been in less-populated southwest Washington and Oregon.

This is not the first time Pope Resources and conservancies have worked together — and on such a large chunk of land.

In May 2008, Cascade Land Conservancy acquired more than 8,000 acres of commercial forestland in the upper Green River watershed with the help of the state Department of Natural Resources for $2.2 million, using a grant from the federally funded Forest Legacy program.

In July this year, The Nature Conservancy purchased 383 acres of forested uplands within the Dabob Bay Natural Area along Hood Canal in Jefferson County. The land was transferred to the state Department of Natural Resources to be managed as part of the Dabob Bay Natural Area.

At the time of that sale, Nunes said his company “has committed nearly 20,000 acres to permanent conservation since 1998.”

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