The dream of a forested wildlife corridor protected in perpetuity at the gateway to Mount Rainier near Ashford is now a reality.
The Nisqually Land Trust just completed the ambitious 2,500-acre project with purchase of 520 acres from the Hancock Timber Resource Group at a cost of $2.8 million.
The Mount Rainier Gateway Initiative began with conservation groups and Ashford-area residents banding together in 2005 to ward off large-scale logging that threatened the tourist economy in the upper watershed of the Nisqually River.
Seven years, several land purchases and $10.5 million later, the corridor, which includes old-growth trees along state Route 706 near the Ashford park entrance, is complete, linking Gifford Pinchot National Forest just outside the national park to Elbe Hills State Forest.
Grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were the key source of funding for the wildlife corridor, which will be managed through a conservation easement with the state Department of Natural Resources.
The wildlife habitat connected by the corridor is home to spotted owls, marbled murrelets, bald eagles, elk, cougars and other species, said Joe Kane, executive director of the Nisqually Land Trust.
“Protected corridors are critical to their survival, especially in the face of threats like climate change,” Kane said. “They allow wildlife to adapt to habitat changes by traveling from low country to high, from east to west and north to south and from timberlands to river bottoms.”
While the latest purchase was the most expensive, it also includes the largest concentration of old-growth timber, Kane said. “It’s a real strong anchor for the corridor,” he said.
Hancock manages some 6.6 million acres of timberland worldwide for its investors. But at the same time, it has sold off several hundred thousand acres in cases where the environmental values of the property outweigh timber production.
In 2009, Hancock sold 720 acres of critical habitat and scenic vistas near the national park to the land trust and followed that with a 600-acre sale in 2010.
“We have great respect for the Nisqually Land Trust, a respect that has only grown over the past four years as we’ve worked with them,” said Mike Wolf, president of Hancock Timber’s forest management operations in North America.
The land trust still has its sights on 2,000 acres of private timberland that would connect the park environs to Tahoma State Forest.
The Nisqually Tribe, which also provided funding for the project, will help the land trust manage natural resources in the corridor.