Elk and hunters are among the obvious winners from the first deal in the largest state land exchange movement in Washington history. The deal was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Washington’s Board of Natural Resources.
Although it may not be immediately obvious, nearly everybody else in the state also is a winner in this landmark trade to assure that the east slope of the Central Cascades is not subdivided into oblivion.
This is a story more important to sportsmen and conservationists than the building of Safeco Field to Mariners fans.
After several years of negotiations, public meetings and appraisals, the Department of Natural Resources is trading 20,970 acres of state lands scattered in 15 counties in return for 82,548 acres of former Boise-Cascade timberland now owned by Western Pacific Timber.
DNR is trading land appraised at $56.55 million for WPT land of just slightly higher value.
Currently most of WPT’s 200,000 acres in Washington – mostly in checkerboard ownership with state and federal lands in the Central Cascades – are being managed for timber production.
But private bean counters would like to sow other types of seeds on much of that land.
WPT owner Tim Blixseth has made a fortune buying, selling, trading and developing timberlands in the West, and it was clear that many of these sections between Yakima and Ellensburg were ripe for sale to the millionaires spilling out of the Seattle area looking for their private piece of recreation heaven.
“Checkerboard ownership worked well when our neighbors were large timber companies,” said George Shelton, DNR’s assistant region manager in Ellensburg. “But with investment firms buying the land, there’s no uncertainty about what’s going to happen to the land sooner or later.
“The only way to make sure the state has working forests 80 years from now is to block up our holdings.”
DNR owns 34,186 acres of checkerboard lands in the Naneum and Coleman creek areas. When the deal is completed, the state will own a solid block of 76,988 acres that will be open to public recreation.
Perhaps more important, it keeps intact a block of habitat biologists have documented as a critical link between summer and winter ranges for the Yakima elk herd.
Sacrifices are being made to seal this deal. For example, a few full sections of land near Loon Lake and Medical Lake are among lands being transferred from state to private ownership, and perhaps you are losing a backyard place to hunt or recreate.
Most of the parcels, however, are smaller and more scattered, some with limited access that allows use only by adjacent landowners.
Sportsmen who could see the forest beyond the trees played a huge role in moving this land exchange through the public process, state officials say.
“In the first comment period, more than 50 percent of the response was negative,” said Rance Block, regional field rep for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
The public discussions were vigorous, leading to the removal of some state lands from the exchange package. But the exchanges did not unravel, partly because sportsmen’s groups rallied.
“With the help of RMEF, the Mule Deer Foundation and the National Wild Turkey Federation, we explained the big picture and sportsmen responded,” Block said. “In the end, 98 percent of the public comments have been positive.”
As big as this deal is, it’s not the end of the exchanges.
Still to come, DNR is seeking to trade roughly 120,000 acres of its sparsely timbered shrub-steppe lands near Ellensburg and Yakima for roughly 50,000 acres of timberlands owned by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. When complete, no public access will be lost, but wildlife will have a solid block of undeveloped state and federal land – including critical winter ranges – from Blewett Pass all the way to the Columbia River.
DNR also is negotiating land exchanges west of Yakima involving about 4,400 acres with Ahtanum Irrigation District. However, other negotiations have failed to secure 8,900 acres in checkerboard ownership with Shawn Monte Timber Company near Yakima.
Local note: The South Stevens County land exchange is a separate program that involves much more state land proposed for trade with a land broker. Action on this exchange has been postponed, probably until December.
Today, however, DNR officials and active sportsmen should take a bow.
Failure of the Central Cascades negotiations would surely have unleashed development leading to the eventual demise of thriving elk herds and public hunting access in the breadbasket of Washington’s big-game territory.