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Originally published Sunday, May 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

The Cascade Agenda

It's late August 2053 and the Black Diamond onramp to the Cedar County freeway is backed up as usual, drivers nervously checking the remaining...

Special to The Times

It's late August 2053 and the Black Diamond onramp to the Cedar County freeway is backed up as usual, drivers nervously checking the remaining power in the batteries of their hybrid cars. Hopes are fading they can get to their homes in Whatcom, Yakima and Lewis counties for their children's afternoon soccer game.

Grandparents talk about the farms and forests that graced the region at the turn of the century and now lie under cement and asphalt, stretching the length of the Cascade foothills from Snohomish to Pierce counties and beyond. Students marvel at the once-upon-a-time expanse of these working lands as they visit Internet virtual reality rooms for their cultural history homework.

There are a few bright spots, untouched acreage in a sea of development that was saved by conservationists in the early part of the 21st century. Every once in a while, an editorial laments, "Why didn't we do more?" as folks line up for the monthly lottery to gain entry to a park system swamped by a population far greater than it was ever meant to serve.

The region faces two futures.

In one, unmanaged growth, sprawl, and loss of green and open space dominate the landscape. The other is of streams, beaches and estuaries that have been restored and are accessible to all; working farms, orchards and forests that have been conserved, with owners fairly compensated for taking care of them; and an array of attractive housing choices, including lively urban villages, with jobs, stores and spectacular parks and trails within easy reach.

How do we get to that desired future? First, we must rediscover what we knew so well when we brought the 1962 World's Fair here and created the Forward Thrust legacy of civic development — the simple truth that this region succeeds when it joins together. If we separately worry about housing, the economy and the environment as if they were antagonistic, we will assure our children a dismal future. What we most need to conserve is not physical ground, but our common ground.

More than a year ago, representatives from 50 organizations — as diverse as builders, Fortune 500 company executives, civic and governmental leaders, conservationists and neighborhood activists — started to work together to capture that common ground. The Cascade Agenda is the result, a 100-year plan unveiled late last week. The agenda is a common vision for a future of conserved landscapes and vibrant towns; it lays out a series of pragmatic, marketplace strategies for the region to consider in order to make this vision a reality.

The agenda fits nicely with other regional initiatives, such as the Prosperity Partnership at the Puget Sound Regional Council, a unified economic strategy for the Central Puget Sound region.

Underlying the Cascade Agenda is the recognition that the region need not choose between its economy and its environment. Indeed, that is a false choice. We cannot have one without the other.

The Economist recently wrote that the environmental movement's mantra of "legislate, regulate, litigate" does not work anymore. "Market forces could prove the environment's best friend — if only greens could learn to love them," the magazine said.

Looking out over the next century, this region likely will more than double in population. We must act now to preserve what we have for future generations, and recognize that market forces can be our ally in achieving significant conservation while promoting economic growth.

We start with a remarkable region with a worldwide reputation for its quality of life. The 5-million acre, four-county area of King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kittitas counties currently holds 55 percent of the state's population. As the junction of our two major transportation corridors, it literally and figuratively is at the crossroads of our state. If it happens in Washington, chances are it starts in our region.

We also have a solid record of conserving our landscapes and resources here. We now need to build on this base to finally resolve some of our most vexing environmental and land-use issues.

The Cascade Agenda has identified 1.26 million acres critical to the future of our four-county territory. The lands include those that support our traditional economies of fish, farm and forests. They are the natural lands that ensure our quality of life — for the benefit of families here now, and the ones to come. They are the parks, trails and open spaces that will attract the employees of tomorrow — the creative class — who, first and foremost, look at quality of life as they choose where to live and work.

They include lands that will allow our rivers and streams to continue to be vital, and our Puget Sound shoreline to continue to provide beaches for people, and estuaries for wildlife. It is the land necessary so that parks and greenbelts enhance our cities and make them livable and vibrant. And key habitat lands so that our region's biodiversity flourishes alongside our neighborhoods.

There are some big tasks ahead. But they fall into two major principles:

• Bringing market-based conservation tools to a regionwide scale and applying them to conserve critical landscapes;

• Striving to make our cities spectacular places for our families to live, work and play.

First the conservation: Over the years, a number of conservation groups and governments have explored market-based tools to secure conservation. It is now time to elevate these to a level that addresses our regional needs.

We need to recognize there is a legitimate public role in this effort, so we must better coordinate the current levels of public spending. But the Cascade Agenda does not rely on public spending or regulations to achieve its goals.

We need to seriously implement a variety of market-based strategies, such as mitigation banking, which secures the creation — or restoration — of large functional wetlands as mitigation for future developments that may impact smaller scattered wet areas. We need to advance tools such as conservation development, where developers work with conservation groups to preserve critical lands through community-oriented development.

We can conserve timberland and farmland, still producing revenue from harvests, by a variety of mechanisms that allow us to access private capital markets. One tool, which the Washington state delegation has been promoting in Congress, would authorize conservation groups to sell tax-exempt bonds. This program would be similar to the way nonprofit hospital districts finance construction. In this case, investors would see a return as the revenues from harvesting pay off the bonds.

Through creative access to our country's huge capital markets, such mechanisms will allow us to conserve hundreds of thousands of acres important for our environment, economy and quality of life.

Perhaps the key tool is the transfer of development rights, called TDRs. TDRs would allow the region to move development rights from lands we want to conserve to those lands best suited for development. Developers who purchase the rights would be able to increase their building density beyond what might otherwise be allowed. A conservation easement, meanwhile, would be placed on the "sending site," preserving the land from development and keeping it as working forest, farmland or habitat.

TDR programs are challenging to run on a regional scale, but they hold the potential to address the very real economic issues faced by small family foresters, trying to steward lands they have held for generations.

Rough estimates put the total cost of the agenda's conservation goals at about $7 billion over the next 100 years. But these major marketplace approaches and the dozens of strategies each one represents can secure a landscape of such value without burdensome reliance on public funds. It succeeds by doing what The Economist argues is our best hope — making conservation valuable in the marketplace.

In a sense, the outright conservation of these lands is the easy part. It is the second principle that presents a greater challenge for us. We can only succeed at this conservation vision if our cities and towns really become magnets for our region's future population growth. If cities and towns truly become family-friendly, with good roads and schools and nearby jobs so that we want to live within them and not outside them, the pressure on our critical landscapes will be at a level our market-based strategies can manage.

Already, cities are beginning to think this way. A number of private developers, along with local public officials, are working to build vital, dynamic communities with new economic hubs. Conservationists must think that way, too, doing our part to help them succeed by providing the natural and working lands outside our cities, and the parklands inside. And we can do more.

One example is the Green Seattle Partnership, a collaborative effort between Seattle and the Cascade Land Conservancy that aims to restore more than 2,500 acres of forested parkland in the city over the next 20 years.

The Cascade Agenda recognizes density as an answer, but only if it is designed to serve our families and communities. In rural areas, clustering homes into villages or hamlets through the transfer of development rights could accommodate more population, without sacrificing conservation; it also opens the door to just compensation for land in rural areas. This notion is admittedly new and complex. But it deserves further exploration and deliberation.

We have high hopes for the agenda. It's what's needed to take on a job this big. It changes the debate and frames a new regional discussion. It's a commitment to working closely with business leaders, because conservation and quality of life are two sides of the same coin.

Without jobs and a strong economy, we cannot generate the capital needed to conserve land. If we do not conserve land and attract the best and the brightest to the region, we won't have jobs and a strong economy.

An agenda is a work plan. We chose that word because we see this as a work plan for the region. It is the beginning, not the end. We have no choice — to do less is to ignore the demands and rights of our children and grandchildren.

We can leave them an incalculable legacy — the legacy of a region that got it right.

Gene Duvernoy is president of the Cascade Land Conservancy. Charles Bingham is a former top executive at Weyerhaeuser and a sustainable forestry advocate. They are among the co-signers of the Cascade Agenda. Additional information on the agenda is at www.cascadeagenda.com

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