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Okanogan officials balk at government land buys

County leaders say they’re out of the loop on purchases that affect taxes, water rights

K.C. Mehaffey Wenatchee World

OKANOGAN – State and federal agencies are spending several million dollars this year to buy thousands of acres in Okanogan County, prompting county officials to call for notification and an economic analysis of all future public land acquisitions.

Okanogan County commissioners say taking land out of private ownership reduces taxes that support county government and junior taxing districts. When farmland is taken out of production, it hurts the county’s overall economy and can affect available water rights, they say.

Commissioner Andrew Lampe said the board doesn’t want to stop the sale of private land to state or federal agencies. Commissioners just want to know about it ahead of time and understand the reasons for it.

“A lot of times we don’t hear about it until we read about it in the newspaper,” Lampe said of some of the land purchases.

They also want to know the economic impact to the county.

This session, the state Legislature approved more than $6.3 million in funding for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to buy more than 5,000 acres in the Methow, Similkameen and Okanogan valleys.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also announced May 8 $6 million in federal spending for 7,900 acres of land in the Okanogan and Similkameen watersheds, and $2 million to buy as much as 870 acres in the Methow Valley.

“It seems to us like the spigot’s been turned on, and they have a lot of money at their disposal,” Lampe said.

The land is described as critical habitat for endangered species including gray wolves, Canada lynx and salmon, and important carnivore corridors.

“We just want to know what they consider critical,” Lampe said, questioning whether the agencies could achieve the same goals by buying conservation easements so land can be protected but remain productive as farmland or timberland.

Dennis Beich, regional director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Ephrata, said he’s tried to work more closely with Okanogan County, but this year he’s been focused on budget and personnel cuts and hadn’t scheduled meetings to keep officials informed.

“There’s no easy solution. I certainly feel the department has tried to increase communications with the county, and the county feels that we haven’t gone far enough,” he said.

Beich said he believes the county and state can find common goals that protect both wildlife and Okanogan County’s agricultural and natural resource economies.

“I’d much rather see a working timber operation or cattle operation than I would that same property divided up into 5-acre tracts. The former is much better for wildlife than the latter,” he said.

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