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Demonstrators protest WSU deal
By Teresa Herriman
Bonney Lake citizens gathered at the Washington State University Demonstration Forest Saturday to express their displeasure with the university's proposal to return the deed to the 147-acre property in exchange for a large financial donation.
The proposal, announced last week, offers to deed the land back to property owner Weyerhaeuser Company, which entrusted the forest to WSU in 1942 for use as a living classroom for youth-oriented education programs. The 62-year old deal stipulated that if the university no longer wishes to use the land for youth-educational purposes, the forest would revert back to Weyerhaeuser ownership. The property houses several youth programs including the 4-H Challenge Course.
One of the rally organizers was Bonney Lake City Council member Cheryle Noble. In an e-mail, promoting the event, Noble wrote, "Bonney Lake residents accuse Weyerhaeuser of poor stewardship of public resources and destroying public trust by not seeking their input about major land-use decisions that directly affect them."
Phil DeLeo, also a member of the City Council, was among the demonstrators.
"This deal has surprised us," he said. "WSU is the state university and as such, the people of the state have an interest. The use of this forest is as vital as anything else they plan to do with the money."
Community activist Ilana Guttmann is more succinct.
"They have a bad reputation when it comes to public input," she said. "If this is so beneficial to the citizens of Bonney Lake, to the 8,000 youth who use this course and to the environment, why is the public excluded from this decision?"
Guttmann used the Freedom of Information Act to force WSU officials to provide documents pertaining to the divestment plans for the Demonstration Forest. The documents were released to her a week before the announcement.
In exchange for the deed, the university would receive a large donation, estimated to be $24 million, from Weyerhaeuser following of the sale of the land.
Guttmann is concerned about how that money would be used.
"Clearly this deal is worth a lot of money," she said. "Where is the $24 million going to go? That money belongs to the youth of the state. Washington State University has an obligation to honor that."
She is also concerned about what the land deal will mean to the city.
"Bonney Lake is going to be a parking lot with a lovely view of the mountain," Guttmann said.
The protesters hope to thwart the land deal by putting pressure on the city of Bonney Lake to deny applications to rezone the forest. The property is currently zoned for public use. A zoning change would be necessary to develop the land for commercial and residential uses. Weyerhaeuser and WSU have indicated the deal is contingent on getting the land rezoned.
Residents also hope to derail the project by using a letter-writing campaign directed at the university and its board of regents. The regents must approve the plan before WSU can proceed.
The board is scheduled to meet Friday. Action item regarding the property is listed on the agenda for that meeting.
Part of the deal calls for Weyerhaeuser to deed a 104-parcel of land located near Black Diamond to the university for a new rope challenge course and facilities. WSU officials have touted the deal as a win for the program. However, WSU Challenge Program and Demonstration Forest Program Director Brian Brandt doesn't think replicating the Bonney Lake course will be possible.
"Unfortunately, through our feasibility studies of where we would put courses, the site they selected does not meet our standards to be able to serve the youth and be self-sustaining," Brandt said. "The facts of our research show us that our program will fail."
He said other ropes courses in the area and the additional travel time for current clients would handicap the program.
"We're going to lose 80 percent of our business because the drive times are too long for groups. We've already been told by groups that they won't be able to use our program," he added.
Although Brandt claims he and program coordinator Vicky McCarley are open to discussing better options, no one from the university has solicited their advice either before or after the announcement of the land deal.
In fact, Brandt and McCarley said they first received word of the proposal from an e-mail forwarded to them by the director of the WSU Research Center in Puyallup.
"We got it as part of the staff directory," McCarley said. "There was no direct phone contact with any of the on-site staff."
Despite the snub, McCarley said she and Brandt are eager to work with the university to salvage their program.
"We would very willingly work with Washington State (University) and Weyerhaeuser and anyone else involved and share information they would need about our program and our clients," McCarley said. "Our concern is that they are not considering our program."
She added, "We're not interested in working against the university, but I'd like to know they are working with us."
Former Bonney Lake Challenge Course director, Sam Tower, strongly feels that the Bonney Lake program would be in jeopardy if moved to the proposed Black Diamond site.
"Are Washington State (University) and Weyerhaeuser going to leave a legacy of a destroyed forest and youth program?" he asked. "I think it's really sad they would even consider doing that."
Tower is also concerned about the environmental impact of losing the forest. As a bio filter, he said, the forest is irreplaceable.
In the meantime, work continues on maintenance to the site. Saturday was the first of three scheduled community work parties.
According to Sarah Butzine, AmeriCorp member serving at the Bonney Lake Demonstration Forest, 45 to 50 volunteers worked for five hours to help create a perimeter trail around the property. Members from AmeriCorp and AmeriCorp Vista - a part of the AmeriCorp Alliance for Children, Youth and Families - joined a crew from the National Civilian Community Corps and various community volunteers who cleared a four-foot wide trail to allow public access around the forest.
McCarley said the work is important in maintaining the site for program participants and the public.
The volunteers cleared and blazed several hundred feet of trail, transplanted plants and graveled and leveled existing trails.
Other community trail events are planned for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and again Dec. 4.
Teresa Herriman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.