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

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Bigger than anything, a 100-year quest

At first, the staggering numbers of the Cascade Land Conservancy's plan make its vision so big and so distant, the image becomes fuzzy with...

At first, the staggering numbers of the Cascade Land Conservancy's plan make its vision so big and so distant, the image becomes fuzzy with time and calculations: a 100-year telescope aimed at four counties east of Puget Sound; $7 billion in land acquisitions and other costs; a monumental 1.26 million acres of forestland set aside for logging, farms and recreation.

This is a very big deal. It is not about the hand of government. Instead, it is a separate, parallel track through the forest that aspires to a vision larger than any other in the United States. This is too large and too complicated for government to do, nor should it, by itself. Instead of boundaries, it starts with topography.

Comparisons to Maryland's sweeping efforts to preserve farmlands and the efforts to honor the Pine Barrens of New Jersey do not have the scope of CLC's proposal. Those Eastern climes cannot match our landscape.

In an adjoining opinion essay on this page, two architects of the idea put in writing what they have been talking about for months, a future that anticipates two things: 3.5 million more people in this region and, at the same time, keeping the western slope of the Cascades forested. The $7 billion raised through leveraging development credits pays people for their land, or takes money from logging and pays the loggers, who then keep the small mill towns alive.

Grandiosity — a sin in itself — may make this vision too big for our britches, but I have not seen anything like this in a decade, nothing that embraces a whole region, involves builders and many environmentalists and accepts the basic principle that private ownership be compensated for loss of income.

I asked Gene Duvernoy of the Cascade Land Conservancy how anyone can begin to understand the scope of this thing, where to begin? He begins at a crossroads.

"The intersection of growth is at Interstate 90 where it crosses I-5," he said. "We have to ask ourselves if we are just going to continue expansion from there or are we going to keep our forests productive?"

Duvernoy said, "There is a false choice between the environment and development. We can do both, and well, when landowners, environmentalists and developers agree on the basics — that we need each other."

The big idea is keeping forestlands in timber, from Snohomish County through King and Pierce counties, and along the I-90 corridor east to Kittitas County. The axis of those two interstates will be the Argonne of growth. Trench warfare extends from there into the recesses of the four counties.

The other intersection is the coming high-speed crash between the greenies and property-rights advocates. That subject — the probable arrival of Oregon's property-rights initiative before Washington voters next year — will be explored on our pages next Sunday.

The CLC proposal attempts to divert that car crash into a fender bender. The heart of the idea is not turning forests into parks, but keeping them within the commercial timber base of the region. That's the intent of the remarkable Snoqualmie Tree Farm purchase in Eastern King County of last year, where 90,000 acres are set aside for commercial use.

The hitch is that the commercial use doesn't include development. Before 1,300 people at the annual breakfast of CLC last week (apple crêpes and berries, donations totaling $300,000), the message kept on point was, accept growth but keep it out of the forests. That is the vision of the big players, the environmentalists, the big developers and the major political players.

As big an idea as this is, I think its turning point will be small. If small landowners do not buy into this vision, we have decades of trench warfare ahead of us.

James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is:

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