Monday, March 30, 2015

Thurston County's Oregon White Oak Preserve: Take A Walk on the Wild Side

Above: Lacey residents Ruth Smith and Felicia Carroll witnessed this owl on November 11, 2013, about 300 feet into the woods from 27th Avenue SE. “We spotted the owl near the end of our walk. Ruth went home to get her camera and went back to take the picture!” said Carroll. Photo Courtesy of Ruth Smith.

By Janine Unsoeld
Oak Tree Preserve LLC of Bellevue proposes to subdivide 258.5 acres of land in unincorporated Lacey into 1,037 single-family residential lots.

For many, the potential loss of Thurston County’s largest remaining stand of Oregon White Oak, just over 76 acres, and 177 total acres of wooded area, home to a wide range of animals and plants, would be a devastating environmental legacy.

Notification about the development's March 24 public hearing was sent out on March 9. Hundreds of homeowners in subdivisions who live along the site’s perimeter on Marvin Road, 19th Avenue SE, 27th Avenue SE, and Priority Street SE were not notified because they live outside of the required notification area of 300 feet, which is roughly the length of a football field.
Prior to the public even being informed of renewed activity by the applicant, an environmental Mitigated Determination of Non Significance was issued by the county in December, 2014.

On March 4, county hearing examiner Sharon Rice threw out the nearby McAllister Park Homeowners Association State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) appeal on stormwater and oak habitat issues saying it “lacked standing.”
On March 23, the Association dropped another SEPA appeal saying that stopping the Oak Tree Preserve development appeared virtually impossible to fight considering the cost to the association and the risks involved. In exchange, Association president Mark Quinn got assurances from the developer that traffic calming measures would be put in place in McAllister Park.
Above: The proposed Oak Tree Preserve LLC development in Lacey is noticed (yellow sign) at the end of 27th Avenue SE. Due to the rolling topography, neighbors have a hard time visualizing how thousands of drivers will use the current streets and intersections.
Oregon White Oak Habitat
According to the application, 177.2 acres of trees, out of the 258.5 acres, will be cut. The proposed “mitigation” calls for the planting of one tree for every 4,000 square feet of lot.

The largest Oregon White Oak stand is 64.6 acres but also extends onto adjoining properties. Forty-five percent of the Oregon White Oak, considered by the applicant to be “degraded,” will be destroyed.
Theresa Nation, habitat biologist for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, gave strong testimony about the Oregon White Oak grove at the preliminary plat hearing on March 24. Her written testimony comprises seven pages.

In the county’s response, its attorney rebuked Nation for her strong words, saying that “very seldom are we this far apart…” and criticized her for judging the project and the Habitat Management Plan (HMP) under the new county Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO). She was cross examined at length by the applicant.
In part, Nation stated:

“…Significant and avoidable impacts to Oregon white oak habitat have not been addressed. We respectfully recommend that the Office of the Hearing Examiner reject the habitat management plan….”

“Oregon white oak is the only oak species native to Washington. Some individuals of this slow-growing species may live for up to 500 years. Trees typically do not begin producing acorns until they are about 20 years old. Mature oak woodlands are virtually impossible to replace once they are gone. Oak woodlands provide a distinct ecosystem that contributes to wildlife diversity statewide. They are used by more than 200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. The woodlands provide feeding, breeding, resting and sheltering habitat. Many invertebrates...are found exclusively in association with this oak species. Oak habitat in Washington may play a critical role in the conservation of neotropical migrant birds that migrate through or nest in Oregon white oaks.

“The Oak Tree Preserve project as proposed would result in the permanent destruction of 35.6 acres of oak woodlands. This includes the total loss of two distinct habitat areas. The 64.6-acre stand would be reduced by more than a third (24.0 acres). It would become a divided 38.3-acre preserve area and a disconnected 2-acre park. The outright loss of more than 35 acres of Oregon white oak woodland is by far the primary impact to this critical area. It is an impact of enormous proportions not only for the site, but for all oak woodland habitat in Thurston County. The HMP fails to address the gross impacts of the loss.

“The preserve area would be further degraded by the construction of the main collector road directly through it. Road-related impacts include but may not be limited to direct wildlife mortality and an increase in adverse edge effects. Over time, some oaks along the roadway are likely to be declared hazard trees and subsequently removed. This is a particularly problematic occurrence in oaks because snags and dead portions of live oaks provide important habitat for invertebrates and birds.”

The HMP offers a conceptual plan for compensatory mitigation activities. We find that the plan falls egregiously short of the mitigation needs for this project. The primary focus of the plan is to apply enhancement actions to the retained woodlands. Enhancement activities, even if successful, will not compensate for the permanent loss of almost 36 acres of habitat. The entire coverage of the woodlands carries a high value even in its somewhat degraded state. Indeed, attempting mitigation for the proposed level of impact would be extraordinarily complicated, time-consuming and expensive, with an uncertain outcome at best. WDFW experts familiar with this case are in agreement that it is likely impossible....”

Above: These spectacular Oregon White Oak trees on Oak Tree Preserve LLC's land in Thurston County are in danger of being destroyed. 
Take A Walk on the Wild Side
Ruth Smith, a retired nurse, and Felicia Carroll, a state worker, live near the proposed development and attended the plat hearing last week but, caught unprepared and uncertain of what to say, did not provide oral testimony. They are long time friends and with many other neighbors, walk the acreage, which contains many well-worn trails, and appreciate its beauty on a near daily basis. 
Through the years, they have witnessed owls, coyote, pileated woodpecker, bear, deer, fox, snakes, newts and more. They’ve identified a wide range of flora and fauna, learning their names and have learned when to expect the first blossoms and critters.

During a walk through the woodlands on Saturday, they stepped over a wandering newt, excitedly pointed out new buds, and lamented the tenacity of Scot’s Broom, a noxious weed. They also expressed disappointment that the Oak Tree Preserve LLC habitat wildlife biologist, Curtis Wambach, only came to the property three times to make his formal observations, devoting just one day each on prairie plants, the Western Gray Squirrel, and the Mazama Gopher.

As he testified at the March 24 plat hearing, Wambach said he only observed facilitative species on the property, meaning species that would occur on the site, developed or not.  
One day last spring, Carroll says she encountered the biologist on the trail who warned her that he had seen a big cat, perhaps a cougar or mountain lion, up ahead laying on a tree branch, looking down at him.
Carroll, who attended the hearing, said she was waiting to hear Wambach mention this sighting in his report to the hearing examiner, but he did not.
Above: Ruth Smith, left, and Felicia Carroll look at a shrub of Red-flowering Currant, or Ribes sanguineum, one of South Puget Sound's most prized native species and a magnet for the returning Rufous Hummingbird and other pollinators, which were in abundance on the Oak Tree Preserve property on Saturday. Neighbors of the area appreciate the acres of natural habitat.

After our walk through the woodlands, neighbor William Koopman, who also attended the hearing, said:

“It is critically unfortunate that the largest housing development to be built in Thurston County is slated to consume one its last and largest forests....The loss of this habitat is irrevocable. Once it is gone, it will be gone forever. Surely, these trees are worth saving.”
Carroll agreed, and said she heard a number of people at the hearing mention that the goal is to achieve a balance. 
“Given the amount of development in our general area in recent years and the amount of forest we have already lost due to development, in my eyes, we would best achieve balance by leaving what's left of the forest as is. I am hoping for a Hail Mary pass - I would love it if we could develop a coalition of private citizens, various levels of government, and a few nonprofit groups to band together to offer to buy the property from the owner.  The woods are well loved by a number of people in the various developments nearby. Maybe offer a tax credit or find some other ways of making it palatable for the owner.  I'm hoping for a miracle.  Losing that forest and all of its inhabitants would be like losing a dear friend,” Carroll said.

Mobilized to act by what they heard at the hearing, and given the extended deadline for written public comment, Smith and Carroll and several other neighbors have started a petition at which will be submitted to the hearing examiner as public comment. The image used to illustrate the petition is a White Fawn Lily, Erythronium oregonum, located on Oak Tree Preserve LLC property.

Public comment for the proposed development was extended until 4:00 p.m., Friday, April 3.  Written comment may be sent to Cami Petersen, Land Use Clerk, Resource Stewardship Department, Thurston County Office of the Hearing Examiner, 2000 Lakeridge Drive SW, Building One, Second Floor, Olympia, WA 98502. Refer to Case: #2009103087.
For more information about the proposed Oak Tree Preserve development and hearing materials from March 24, go to or contact Cami Petersen at or (360) 754-2933.
A previous article about the Oak Tree Preserve development is dated March 24, 2015 is at Little Hollywood,

Above: Close-up of Red-flowering Current