The Puget Sound basin, so cocky just a few years ago, turned grumpy and depressed after a spate of go-go growth left high housing prices, crawling traffic and sprawl, then persistent unemployment, declining public services and stymied policy-making. This Californication of Pugetopia has produced few visionaries with a compelling alternate future. Even if our political system spawns a Gulliver, he or she is quickly staked to the earth with the Lilliputian ropes of political gamesmanship, endless legal challenges, editorial second-guessing and hand-wringing by an electorate informed to the point of paralysis.
So a man like Robert Tibbs seems a curious anomaly. He is not a self-promoter. His Cascadia-Pacific Institute is self-financed from his British army pension. He doesn't have a car (he literally "walks the talk," a friend said), has not made a dime from years of work trying to save Northwest Washington, and neither asks for nor gets any kind of recognition or thanks.
Strangest of all in these days of gridlocked politics, Tibbs actually has a vision of what he wants the future to be. Fearing that Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., will inevitably blob together into a copy of Southern California, he has spent the past decade tirelessly promoting an alternative: a multicounty "green heartland" of forest and farmland, permanently preserved between the two cities, based on the model of Dutch conservation in The Netherlands.
So he's unwilling to see something so uniquely beautiful erode away. He wants Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, San Juan and Island counties, plus southwestern British Columbia, to take a more unified, regional approach toward preservation, planning and sensible economic development.
He thinks we can learn from Western Europe.
Work together? It has been an elusive dream. "There is almost zero connection between us and Skagit County, and I'm guessing the same is true elsewhere," says Dan McShane, a Whatcom County councilman who works as a geologic consultant for developers and is well aware how quickly the green stuff is slipping away. "Everyone likes to have their power, and they're very defensive about giving up their power."
All the 61-year-old Tibbs really has is a gentle, engaging personality, a dogged persistence, a willingness to give his own life to this region, and an idea that is still evolving. It's been enough to recruit a loose but impressive network of supporters between the two metropolitan areas and convince Western Washington University to give him an office and the University of Washington, University of British Columbia and Wageningen University in Holland to sign on in alliance. Recent "green heartland" dinners have drawn about 40 participants, ranging from academics to agency heads to architects to environmentalists.
"If nothing is done, we'll just have one big, urban mass," he warns. "But we have an opportunity here for a green heartland. It's there already, but we don't notice it."
WHAT DOES he see? Coming from the United Kingdom, Tibbs has knowledge of how Europe draws strict boundaries between town and field. He spent 20 years in the British artillery and developed a gunner's eye for terrain: two decades in which his purpose in life, he says, seemed ill-defined. He worked as a leadership consultant in Vancouver after leaving England. And finally, in the green hills and lush farms and blue water of Northwest Washington, he found an unspoiled, but threatened, home.
Tibbs points out that the Puget and Fraser delta lowlands are only the size of The Netherlands, and sharply confined by mountains and sea. "We have to have a change in attitude," he says. "We are Europe-size. We are not the wide-open spaces of Western America at all."
And while the Seattle-Vancouver nexus has fewer than half the Dutch population of 16 million, we are rapidly gaining. The state Office of Financial Management projects that between 2000 and 2025, Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, Island and San Juan counties could gain as many as 750,000 people, or almost a 72 percent increase in a generation, to a total of 1.7 million. King County could add 600,000, reaching to 2.3 million.
Whatcom and Skagit counties have already lost about one third of the farmland they had at their historic peak, or a decline of about 110,000 acres.
By keeping 70 percent of the landscape in agriculture through planning and zoning Americans would consider draconian. The most famous example is designation of a "green heartland" of agricultural and recreational land between the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. New towns of dense housing have been built in a ring and farms so vigorously preserved in the center that in some cases farmers live in town and commute to their fields.
Another heartland exists between the cities of Nijmegen and Arnhem, and the two longtime competitors that straddle the Rhine are now cooperating on a modern, compact transportation hub between them.
Tibbs isn't suggesting that Northwest Washington mimic Holland, even though Whatcom and Skagit counties are sprinkled with farm families of Dutch ancestry. Some of what the Dutch call "green" is actually glass: vast expanses of glass greenhouses north of Rotterdam. Besides, Holland's history of a decades-long struggle to win independence from the Spanish, and then its centuries of battling the sea, have created a cooperative culture completely different from the cowboy individualism of the United States.
What he is suggesting is that Seattle and Vancouver stop taking for granted the gorgeous gap between them and work creatively to sustain it by supporting agriculture, the purchase of development rights, and participation in regional conferences on economic and land-use planning.
Tibbs thinks the forested Chuckanut Highlands that Interstate 5 traverses between Skagit and Whatcom counties could be the heart of the heartland: a woodland core. Highway 9, which parallels I-5 to the east, could become a green corridor similar to the Mountains to Sound Greenway that has preserved 80,000 acres along Interstate 90. Cities such as Arlington, Sedro-Woolley, Deming and Nooksack would become artistic and recreational hubs.
Fantasy? Actually, a tremendous amount of good work is already going on, but in typically American decentralized fashion. The Skagit Watershed Council, for example, has 39 organizations working to protect that river, from Ducks Unlimited to Seattle City Light. The San Juan, Whatcom and Skagit land trusts and the Nature Conservancy have together protected well over 20,000 acres in the region, and the Whidbey-Camano Island Land Trust has worked with the National Park Service to protect another 25 square miles around Ebey's Landing on Whidbey.
Bellingham's Northwest Ecosystem Alliance is working with the state's Department of Natural Resources to strike a new balance between forestry and recreation on Blanchard Mountain, the southwestern peak of the Chuckanut Highlands. The idea of preserving a view corridor along I-5 is gaining momentum.
All the counties have adopted zoning to attempt to preserve forest and farmland and are in various degrees of compliance, some enthusiastic and some grudging, with the state Growth Management Act.
In Canada, the federal and provincial governments are negotiating creation of a new national-park reserve in the southern Gulf Islands that border the San Juans, comprising 26 square kilometers of existing public land scattered across 14 islands. And environmental groups have put together an international effort to jointly protect the boundary waters between the San Juan and Gulf islands.
In Skagit County, a new Skagit Delta Initiative shows promise in trying to break a deadlock between farmers and tribes on salmon-enhancement efforts, ushering in an era of cooperation. In Anacortes, residents have contributed nearly $600,000 toward permanently protecting the city's forested watershed from logging, mining or development. Towns like Stanwood and Sedro-Woolley are trying to unify their downtowns with architectural detailing.
Aren't these and a host of similar efforts enough? Northwest Washington is dotted with parks, preserves, trails and scenic drives. What's the problem?
ABSENT, TIBBS SAYS, is a unity of vision of what this area intends to become. One notion is a bucolic preserve and playground between two major population centers. Its reverse is scores of communities that want to "grow up" like the big boys next door, even if it destroys the quality of life they take for granted. Everyone wants a semi-rural lifestyle, convenient malls, jobs to employ the children and no change in the landscape. To which politicians promise, "Yes."
The result could be a continuous belt of suburban sprawl from Seattle to Vancouver dotted with small islands of preservation that make little ecological, recreational or economic sense.
An example of conflicting vision is an attempt by Whatcom County to preserve the farmland between Bellingham and the Canadian border. "We're seeing more and more people living in the United States and commuting into Canada," councilmember McShane noted, and so policy-makers came up with the idea of limiting the sprawl of Bellingham, Ferndale, Lynden and Sumas by buying up farmland development rights.
If anybody should support this it is Lynden, a tidy Dutch farming community. Yet even though Lynden has three times as much land designated for growth as it occupies, it wants the right to sprawl onto farmland as well, and is battling the county desire to stop growth at Badger Road. "We want to let people make that determination 60 or 70 years from now," says Mayor Jack Louws, who runs a truss-manufacturing firm. In the meantime, he argues, let Lynden grow.
Tibbs has no prescriptions in this debate. He's neither radical nor ideological, his vision is deliberately vague because he very much wants locals to decide the region's future in partnership. The difference is that where most vision stops at the lot line, or the city boundary, or the county border, his looks at the Puget-Fraser lowland region as if from a satellite.
"We're not very good at large-scale planning in the United States," says Dennis Ryan, a UW associate professor of urban design and planning who works with Tibbs. "I like the clarity of the idea: the importance of this heartland region to the two metropolitan areas. Robert doesn't want to just click this into existing structures but create new structures."
"We have this paradise between two giant metropolitan areas," agrees Wayne Schwandt, a managing director at Bellingham's Trillium development company, who has been working with Tibbs for 20 years. His company is promoting a proposed coastal trail from Vancouver to Seattle already under way in Whatcom County. "Robert happens to be in this place, but his concept is really a world vision. Can we stop growth? Obviously not. But we can preserve green space and make reasonable transportation decisions."
Tibbs isn't running for election, filing initiatives, drafting lawsuits or making speeches. By inclination he's as much listener as leader, and much more of an educator and facilitator than a proselytizer. It makes him easy to ignore. It also makes him worth listening to.
Anyone can see our probable future, just by driving I-5. It's obvious at Marysville, Smokey Point, Stanwood, Burlington, BellisFair and Ferndale. It will be a hundred miles of greater Lynnwood, on the grand model of Southern California.
But there's one knight errant tilting against this development pattern. "We have to look at the future differently than the past," argues Brad Smith, dean of Western's Huxley College of Environmental Science. Tibbs, he says, does this. "In a world of cynicism, competitive greed, power and ego, none of this applies to Robert. He's simply an advocate of a strong quality of life."
That's why Smith has given this idealistic Brit office space and support.
"I like to think there are Don Quixotes out there, still."
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Harley Soltes is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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