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Funding still in flux for coalition's land conservation goals

Port Gamble Bay Funds Project Cost And SummaryTo a lot of conservation-minded folks around North Kitsap, the DOE might be regarded as Disappointment of Everyone.

The state Department of Ecology recently announced how it plans to allocate the remaining $5 million of a legislative appropriation that originally was intended to purchase a critical shoreline area of Port Gamble Bay.

The Kitsap Forest & Bay Coalition had hoped to see most of that funding designated to go toward purchasing more forestland in the bay’s watershed beyond the shoreline block, for which a deal with Pope Resources is in place.

The DOE, however, after soliciting ideas earlier this year for other qualifying projects, came up with a list released in September that allocates only $500,000 to $770,000 for the land acquisition that has long been Kitsap Forest & Bay Coalition’s goal.

Stakeholders in the coalition uniformly expressed disappointment with that outcome.

“I was taken aback that there wasn’t more funding for land acquisition,” state Sen. Christine Rolfes said, “because preservation of that watershed is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as well as a tried-and-true way to preserve that whole ecosystem” around Port Gamble Bay.

Rolfes, a Bainbridge Island Democrat whose 23rd District includes North Kitsap County, said she contacted Ecology officials who assured her that the funding distribution for a dozen projects represents only a “working list” that may be subject to further review.

“We are disappointed, because we did expect the lion’s share of those funds to go to land acquisition,” said Sandra Staples-Bortner, executive director of the Great Peninsula Conservancy, one of the community groups active in the coalition.

The way DOE official Barry Rogowski sees it, land acquisition did get the most funding.

“We put 60 percent of the money toward land acquisition, and 40 percent to other projects of critical importance to the bay and the watershed also,” said Rogowski, who’s only been involved with the Port Gamble Bay situation since he transferred within DOE to the Toxics Control Program a few months ago.

His 60 percent calculation, however, includes the $2 million that was already committed (from the total $7 million in funding that came through DOE) to the 454-acre shoreline block purchase.

He also counts $1.5 million (out of the remaining $5 million) that DOE put in contingency status to cover a potential shortfall if another grant for the shoreline deal is lost. Rogowski acknowledged that if the $1.5 million isn’t needed to backfill on the shoreline block purchase, the money could go to other projects, but “I would say there’s a good chance it could go to forestland acquisition.”

Coalition members feel the funding was always intended for buying land, both for conservation to help protect the bay and for maintaining public access for outdoor recreation on the popular network of trails in the upland forest.

The proviso language in the funding bill was intentionally broad, stipulating the money must be used for “Source control, habitat preservation and cleanup sustainability.”

The coalition’s land acquisition goal covers all three provisions, and may be the only project on DOE’s funding list that does, according to Linda Berry-Maraist, president of the North Kitsap Trails Association and a Poulsbo City Council member.

“Land conservation is permanent habitat preservation. Preventing development and providing land for infiltration and protection of the aquifer is source control,” she said.

Berry-Maraist also noted that DOE official Tim Nord, during his negotiations with Pope Resources over a mill site cleanup plan that was required to secure the $7 million in state funding, consistently made public comments about the money going to land acquisition.

She cited a North Kitsap Herald article from February when DOE’s negotiations with Pope were at an impasse that jeopardized the funding. Nord was quoted as saying, “I wanted to protect the bay and shoreline for generations, and the best way to do that was to buy land.” Another quote was “We had an agreement. That agreement was for cleanup and land acquisition.”

That was a big reason why Kitsap Forest & Bay Coalition members who were lobbying legislators to get the funding approved thought the $7 million would go to their conservation project.

“We wrote those letters, believed at the time, and have continued to believe that though the proviso language was vague and there might be a mix of projects, the primary intent of that money was for land conservation and the permanent ecological benefits that would come from that,” Berry-Maraist said. “It was only late this spring, after DOE-Pope Resources negotiations got so heated and after DOE staff turnover, that I became aware that change might be coming.”

Others echoed that.

“I think when the Pope cleanup deal changed, these dollars changed,” Staples-Bortner said.

Rogowski disputed that. “Let’s get real about this; there are other people lobbying for this money,” he said.

That includes the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, which is involved as a Kitsap Forest & Bay Coalition member supporting its land conservation goals. Yet of the other projects on DOE’s “working list” slated for funding allocations out of the remaining $5 million, five were suggested by the tribe and are allocated more than $1.8 million. Those projects include a study on restoring herring in the bay; habitat enhancement to help restore Olympia oysters; and eelgrass restoration to improve fish habitat.

Tribal chairman Jeromy Sullivan did not respond to calls seeking comment about the DOE funding allocations.

Rogowski said he and other agency staff plan to go to meet with Olympic Property Group president Jon Rose in October for a walking tour of the Pope Resources forestland above the shoreline block.

“We want to figure out which parcels are best to buy,” said Rogowski, adding that the best approach with limited funds may be to “buy prime subsections” of the larger tract, including high-priority areas such as stream and trail corridors and critical habitat and wetland areas.

He also asserted that DOE hasn’t gotten much credit for its substantial contributions toward assuring cleanup and restoration of Port Gamble Bay.

“I don’t think there’s been adequate recognition that Ecology has put a lot of work into this,” he said.

Noting that the money has to be spent within two years, he said the working list DOE assembled provides a starting point for all the involved parties, who may be able to find other grants — Navy mitigation funds being one possibility — for some of the projects, potentially allowing some flexibility to reallocate DOE funds.

The top priority in restoration of Port Gamble Bay — other than the mill site cleanup that Pope Resources is paying for — has always been the shoreline block south of the former mill site, and the $7 million figure came from DOE’s inquiry to Pope about purchasing that land.

“They asked me for a budget figure,” Rose said. “The property hadn’t been appraised yet, … so I said why don’t you budget $7 million.”

The land ultimately was appraised at $4.6 million, and the coalition had secured other grants to apply to the shoreline purchase, so the full amount of DOE funding wasn’t needed for that deal. That’s what has created the current situation of conflicting views on how to spend the rest.

“A lot of folks were hoping the rest of it could go to additional land acquisition,” Rose said. “We certainly supported that idea.”

Coalition members planned a late September meeting to consider next steps.

“We are a little disappointed by this working list put out by Ecology, but we understand it is just a working list,”Staples-Bortner said. “So we’re hoping to work with our community partners to leverage those Ecology dollars in a more effective way.”

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