PORT GAMBLE — After a year and a half of earnest fundraising, and several years of plans and proposals, the paperwork phase of preserving thousands of acres in Port Gamble is coming to an end.
The option agreement between Forterra, representing the Kitsap Forest and Bay Coalition, and Pope Resources officially ends March 28, but parties on both sides are confident a deal is near.
Up in the air are nearly 7,000 acres in the Port Gamble area that the coalition wants to acquire for public open space and conservation. Much of the fundraising is focusing on a 1.8-mile stretch of shoreline along the west side of Port Gamble Bay.
In addition to the shoreline, funding requests have been awarded or are being considered to protect 60 miles of forested trails, rare trees in the wetland at the North Kitsap Heritage Park, and a geoduck bed to the west of the mill site.
“We’ll only get once chance at it. When it’s lost, it’s lost,” County Commissioner Rob Gelder said.
All the funding is earmarked for specific areas, said Sandra Staples-Bortner, executive director of the Great Peninsula Conservancy, which applied for some of the grants. If successful, the coalition will have raised $12 million, but the amount of acreage that amount will buy is unknown.
Forterra, an environmental nonprofit organization, is acting as facilitator for the principal groups: Kitsap County, Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and Suquamish Tribe, as well as more than 20 other member organizations. Liz Johnston, conservation transactions director for Forterra, said the property’s appraisal cannot be released while in negotiations.
“We’ll fit all the puzzle pieces together to conserve as much of the property as possible,” she said. The fundraising effort “triggers a lot of other discussions.”
Eric Baker, special projects manager for Kitsap County, said what will be bought is not a simple geography question.
“The principals have not determined how to spread those dollars around, whether to buy in a [geographic] boundary, or development rights of a larger area and allow Pope to log, or buy the trees and allow development,” he said.
Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish are expected to be stewards of some of the parcels, but Port Gamble S’Klallam Chairman Jeromy Sullivan said the S’Klallam Tribe is looking at purchasing some of the project’s land through its own means.
There have been no grants received to purchase the Hansville block, which borders the reservation to the north, but Sullivan said the S’Klallam Tribe is interested.
“The Tribe has to consider if it wants to … [try] to purchase some land from Pope or keep the option agreement going by other means, like possibly a promissory note,” Sullivan said.
Staples-Bortner said after the option agreement is negotiated, Great Peninsula Conservancy is “seriously considering” reaching out to the public for a capital campaign to try and purchase more of the land.
“I am thrilled by how this coalition has worked together as a team,” she said, being represented by trails, cultural heritage and habitat groups.
The state Legislature is currently working on its budget, which includes a few grants for this project. Staples-Bortner said the coalition expects to hear in April if the grants are awarded to them; any awarded funding will come in July.
Gelder and state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge, are confident negotiations will start soon and the deadline will be flexible as grant awards are announced.
“The deadline is in one week, but I believe we have met the trigger for the extension of each of the five blocks [of land],” Gelder said. News of impending grants is “enough to tip us over the edge to iron out the details.”
The project has received, so far:
— $9 million from the Department of Ecology, committed by the state Legislature in 2011. The majority of that funding, $7 million, is part of the state’s contribution to the cleanup of Port Gamble Bay — another agreement currently being fleshed out between Pope Resources and Ecology.
“Everybody’s just waiting with bated breath, waiting to see what happens in the cleanup agreement,” Gelder said.
— $3.5 million from the Navy’s mitigation agreement to the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe for shoreline acquisition.
— $1 million from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, for Port Gamble Bay shoreline acquisition.
— $400,000 from the U.S. Forest Service for the Heritage Park Addition.
Grants pending: A total of $3.65 million for shoreline acquisition, Divide Block acquisition, and Heritage Park expansion from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.
When talks between Ecology and Pope broke down earlier this year, many were worried the $7 million may not be allocated because that money is tied to the cleanup agreement. However, Rolfes said the cleanup agreement and the option agreement will work “in tandem” with one another.
“The negotiations for the land should be able to continue as long as there is a willing seller and a willing buyer,” she said via email. “I’m looking forward to a [good] announcement in the near future.”
Jon Rose, president of Olympic Property Group, the real estate arm of Pope Resources, said the company is not going to “foreclose” on the grant opportunities still pending just because they are not announced by March 28.
“Whatever grants they have in place that we have agreed it’s appropriate for them to go after, we’re going to see how those play out,” he said.Rose said the company has been working on a community partnership for the acquisition of Pope’s land in Port Gamble since 2007.
“The potential level [of the grant funding] is larger than I could imagine it could be, and that’s great,” Rose said, adding that the community has “done an amazing job.”
He said partnering with the community for these kind of environmental efforts is a Pope business practice. “We make a habit of trying to find important and very authentic partnership opportunities for the community,” Rose said.
Preserving this large amount of land, particularly surrounding Port Gamble Bay, is multifaceted as an investment in our cultural and environmental resources.
Gelder pointed to tourism dollars from recreational visitors that would boost the local economy. He also said this project will have a big impact on future generations, partially by protecting our water sources. North Kitsap is drier than the rest of the county and cannot rely on snow melt or reservoirs for water. By avoiding development on our most impervious surfaces — the sands and soils around Port Gamble Bay — we can protect our aquifers.
The county has two distinct policies for steward management. Each parcel will have a conservation easement, so the land will remain open space in perpetuity.