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Nature Conservancy allays concerns over plans for land in Kittitas County

Cascades private forest remains open to bikes and motor vehicles. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
Cascades private forest remains open to bikes and motor vehicles. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
Kate Prengaman Yakima Herald-Republic

When an international conservation group announced last winter it was making a major purchase of forest land in western Kittitas County, it raised some concern among area residents who enjoyed biking, hunting and snowmobiling in the area.

Fear of losing access under the new ownership has eased with The Nature Conservancy’s release of a management plan that places an emphasis on recreational use for the 48,000 acres of former Plum Creek Timber land.

“I think they did a great job ensuring access that’s consistent with historic, legal use,” said Scott Gray, a member of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance and the Kittitas County Parks and Recreation Commission.

“I know the concern initially was that The Nature Conservancy was going to come in and close everything down, and they didn’t do that at all,” Gray said.

Now known as the Central Cascade Forest, the land is largely scattered in checkerboard pattern with National Forest land on both sides of Interstate 90 from Cle Elum to near Snoqualmie Pass.

The primary goal of the land purchase is long-term conservation and forest habitat restoration, but public benefits are also key, said Lara Gricar, the Cle Elum-based community liaison for The Nature Conservancy.

“We wanted to work with local partners to create a shared vision that protects nature and supports public recreation, and I think we accomplished that balance,” Gricar said.

More than 120 miles of approved trails crisscross the forest, and while users are encouraged to stay on trails, all the land will be open to nonmotorized uses such as hunting and bird-watching.

Off-trail snowmobile use is also allowed once there is sufficient snow cover.

Specifically, there are 12.6 miles of nonmotorized trails popular with mountain bikes on Cle Elum Ridge, 29.5 miles of single track motorcycle trails, and 78 miles of groomed snowmobile trails during the winter.

Many of the routes start at Forest Service trail heads or designated snowpark locations, so users may not even realize when they have crossed onto The Nature Conservancy’s land, Gricar said.

“If we actually posted every time people would be entering or leaving our land, we would have to post thousands of signs,” she said. “We tried to make our policies consistent with the Forest Service because as a recreationist, you don’t want to have to pay attention to crossing ownerships and different policies all the time.”

However, signs will be posted in some key areas to let the public know about plans for protecting and restoring the lands, she added.

The pattern of checkerboard ownership – alternating public land with private timber land that dates to the railroad land grants in the 19th century – has long presented challenges to forest management. But it has also put public access at risk in recent years as timber companies looked to sell off their property in the eastern Cascades.

Long routes and connected road and trail networks are key for recreational use of all stripes, said Wayne Mohler, a Cle Elum resident and avid snowmobiler.

That’s why so many users are relieved to see many of their favorite routes on The Nature Conservancy’s new trail maps.

“I think it’s really what we hoped for,” Mohler said. “Since it’s all checkerboard, we were hoping that the groomed trails that were established would continue and that’s what happened.”

But that’s not to say the entire 48,000 acres will always be open access.

Some activities, such as riding ATVs on forest roads, were not supposed to be allowed under Plum Creek ownership but likely happened. Now, those uses will not be permitted, consistent with the Forest Service’s rules that all vehicles on its roads must be street legal, Gricar said.

One exception is several miles of the Naches Pass Trail, a popular longtime Jeep and ATV route along the Little Naches River that will remain open as well.

The land will remain a working forest, with ongoing logging and restoration projects that could limit access or create hazards in certain areas, Gricar said.

The management plan calls for timber harvests that target unnaturally dense forest stands; planting a variety of tree species to return diversity to heavily logged forests; and restoring stream habitat.

The Nature Conservancy hired a forester earlier this year to begin developing the specific plans.

Some of the work has already begun. Last month, more than 7,000 Western larch seedlings were planted in the burned areas on the South Cle Elum Ridge, Gricar said.

While planning restoration projects has long been a specialty of the international conservation organization, managing recreational use as a major landowner is pretty new.

Gricar said she’s optimistic about the opportunity to work with local volunteers and user groups to maintain and improve the trails and the forest.

“As a private owner, they certainly had the right to close it off, but I think they see that they need acceptance with the local community, and they really tried to do that and were quite willing and trusting of users,” Mohler said.

“My hope is that the recreation community at large will be respectful and work with them, and this could set up a new way to share resources so that everybody can enjoy these lands.”

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