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Land swap protects wildlife, preserves public access

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation teamed with The Nature Conservancy and several state and federal agencies recently to secure 2,675-acres in the first phase of a three-year project to protect wildlife habitat and public access in the Cascade Mountains near the Naches River in Washington.

By 2011, the project is on track to transfer more than 10,000 acres in Kittitas County from Plum Creek Timber Co. to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The land is within or adjacent to the Wenatchee National Forest.

The deal is part of a continuing effort to consolidate public lands in areas of “checkerboard” ownership, where private timber company lands could be sold piecemeal and developed to the detriment of habitat and public access, said Jeff Tayer, WDFW regional director.

“The first phase of this project has moved a significant piece of critical elk range and calving grounds into public ownership,” said David Allen, Elk Foundation president in Missoula.

The habitat includes alpine areas home to mountain goats, shrub-steppe and basalt cliffs for elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep, and streams used by bull, cutthroat and rainbow trout as well as salmon, said Rance Block of Spokane Valley, a foundation field representative.

“There are existing trails and roads for public access,” he said.

The land was purchase for $3.27 million provided in grants from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fund designed to protect habitat for endangered species. The area will be managed as part of WDFW’s Oak Creek Wildlife Area.