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Spotlighting success: Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, first state-managed wildlife area, celebrating 75 years

People are heading to northcentral Washington to celebrate the state-managed Sinlahekin Wildlife Area’s 75th anniversary during special events this summer.

But Justin Haug said the 14,314 acres have been busy for months.

“Lots of waterfowl species have passed through (during spring migrations) and some stayed to do their thing here,” the wildlife area manager said.

“Bighorn sheep have been dropping lambs,” he added, noting that deer and moose also are having their babies, as well as a wide range of birds.

Fishermen have been casting into the area’s lakes, including Conner, Fish, Reflection Pond and Blue Lake, a special-regulations fishery prized by fly fishermen.

On Saturday, however, the number of visitors heading to this niche of Okanogan County will swell months before hunters begin showing interest this fall.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has planned a summer-long celebration featuring programs on critters ranging from bugs to big game. The free programs also will explore flora, geology and history. Clinics will teach outdoor skills such as fly fishing.

“We’re not just celebrating the purchase of the Sinlahekin,” said Madonna Luers, department spokeswoman. “We’re spotlighting the federal Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, which provided the seed money that enabled the state to preserve the wildlife habitat.”

The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration: Pittman- Robertson Act, named for its lead Congressional sponsors, was passed in 1937 to provide funds from an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition. Funding is allotted to the states on a cost-share basis for game management and habitat protection as well as hunter access and education.

The Sinlahekin was the first Washington wildlife area purchased with the help of the federal program. Six of Washington’s 33 state wildlife areas were started with P-R funds.

The first parcels of the Sinlahekin, west of U.S. Highway 97 between Loomis and Conconully, were secured in 1939 primarily to protect winter range for mule deer. In appreciation, the Mule Deer Foundation is sponsoring a free barbecue lunch on Saturday at the refuge headquarters for visitors.

The P-R funding source, administered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also supported the reintroduction of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep on the Sinlahekin in 1957.

“Each area conserves lands that are critically important for sustaining wildlife and ensuring sustainable recreational opportunities for Washington residents,” said Phil Anderson, state Fish and Wildlife Department director.  “The Pittman-Robertson law enables hunters to make major contributions to these efforts.”

Recreation compatible with wildlife preservation also is encouraged on the wildlife areas.

A new 8-mile foot trail will be dedicated Saturday and activities such as fun-runs will be organized later in the summer celebrations.

Saturday’s ceremonies, starting at 11 a.m. at the headquarters south of Loomis, will be kicked off by an hour of presentations by local, state, federal and tribal officials.

Birdwatchers are organizing a Big Day event to see how many bird species they can document from sunrise to sunset.

In the afternoon, local anglers and Fish and Wildlife staff will conduct how-to clinics for fishing around the Sinlahekin, including nearby Palmer Lake, well known for its smallmouth bass, and the trout waters of Blue and Spectacle lakes.

No fishing license is required to fish these and other waters in the state next Saturday and Sunday, which is Washington’s Free Fishing Weekend.

P-R funds were used to expand the Sinlahekin and to begin other wildlife areas across the state, including:

• Oak Creek Wildlife Area in Yakima County, 1940.

• Methow in Okanogan County, 1941.

• W.T. Wooten in Columbia County, 1941.

• North Cleman Mountain Unit of Wenas Wildlife Area in Yakima County, 1942.

• Klickitat in Klickitat County, 1948.

• Lake Terrell Unit of Whatcom Wildlife Area in Whatcom County, 1948.

PR funds have helped Washington acquire more than 150,000 acres for wildlife and recreation, but other funding sources subsequently have been tapped to expand wildlife protections:

• 1940-1970, the state made acquisitions with funds from the federal Dingell-Johnson Act excise tax on fishing equipment as well as the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

• 1970-1990, funding also came from programs of Public Utility Districts, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration to mitigate losses of wildlife and habitat caused by dams.

• Since 1990, grants have been tapped from the state-funded Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund.

The result: Washington has 33 wildlife areas and 700 water-access sites totaling about 1 million acres used by more than four million visitors a year, Fish and Wildlife Department officials say.

“Washington’s Wildlife Areas make up just 1.4 percent of all land in the state, but provide a disproportionate share of habitat for many of the fish and wildlife species listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act,” Luers said in a media release.

“These lands also provide key ecological functions such as water delivery, groundwater replenishment and migratory fish and wildlife passage, plus public access to hunting, fishing, wildlife watching, and other outdoor recreation.”

While the properties cannot be taxed after they’re acquired by the state, counties can choose to receive payments in lieu of property tax on the land.

In 2013, WDFW officials say they paid $579,999 to Washington counties, plus $405,915 in assessments for weed control, stormwater and lake management, and diking and conservation districts.

Nate Pamplin, who heads the agency’s Wildlife Program, said the Sinlahekin and other department lands play an important economic role. 

“Conservation and recreation stimulate economic activity in local communities across the state,” he said.

“People who hunt, fish and watch wildlife in Washington not only have great experiences, but they also contribute significantly to the state’s economy.”

After the dedication on Saturday, Haug and Dale Swedberg, the agency’s Okanogan Lands Operations manager, plan to lead conversations about living and working in the Sinlahekin area.

Haug has keen insight, not only because he works daily on the property, but also because his hobby is wildlife and nature photography.

“This place and the wildlife that call it home are especially inspiring through the lens of a camera,” he said.

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