A Bellevue couple have bought the lower slopes of Steptoe Butte to preserve one of the most notable landmarks in Eastern Washington from encroaching development.
Dr. Kent Bassett and his wife, Elaine, paid $638,000 for 437 acres during an auction last week. They were the highest bidders for the property that spreads across three sides of the towering butte in the heart of the Palouse and connects to state park land.
The couple are hoping to resell the property either to expand the existing state park or to allow a conservation group to prevent it being developed in the future.
Bassett, 65, is a graduate of Pullman High School and a big fan of the Palouse prairie region.
“We grew up loving the Palouse,” he said last week.
The land sold at an auction in St. John last week is nearly three times larger than the existing Steptoe Butte State Park, which is 150 acres. The acreage bought by the Bassetts wraps around the butte on the east, south and west.
It includes remnants of Palouse Prairie bunch grass habitat as well rare Palouse wildflowers and pockets of historic fruit trees.
Bassett, an ophthalmologist at the Eye Clinic of Bellevue and Overlake Optical, said last week he and his wife bought the land to preserve it. He described the effort as a “rare environmental victory.”
“We feel strongly that someone had to step up,” Bassett said.
Elaine Bassett attended the auction Wednesday at the community center in St. John, where she made the winning bid of $580,000, not including a 10 percent buyers’ premium.
The full contract price was set at $638,000 with closing expected in early November.
Bassett said he was unable to attend, but was told the small crowd at the auction was emotional about the Bassetts’ winning bid.
The 3,612-foot-high mountain is described by state parks officials as a “thimble-shaped quartzite butte” towering over the Palouse farmland below. Geologically, the butte holds some of the oldest rocks in Washington state.
Known as Pyramid Peak, the promontory was renamed in honor of Col. Edward J. Steptoe, who fought a battle with Native Americans just outside of Rosalia in 1858.
It’s easily visible from Spokane and other distant points, and its summit provides great views of the mountain ranges to the north and east.
At one time there was a hotel at the peak, built by James S. “Cashup” Davis, one of the more colorful historical figures on the Palouse; his name derived from his practice of dealing in cash at his general store in a place now called Cashup on U.S. Highway 195.
Davis’ hotel burned in 1911.
The so-called “island in the sky” became a state park on July 4, 1946, following a campaign by a local resident, Virgil McCroskey, to save the summit. McCroskey donated 120 acres of land to found the park.
Among the people who attended last week’s auction was Dave Benscoter, like Bassett a graduate of Pullman High, whose investigation of rare heirloom apple trees along the butte earned him the nickname of “apple detective.”
Benscoter said one of the bidders for the property was a farmer, and Benscoter was concerned that fruit trees growing on the private land might be bulldozed.
He praised the Bassetts for stepping up.
“These people are just incredible,” he said. “They have pledged they are not going to change anything.”
Last weekend, the Bassett family set up a website for the Steptoe Butte Prairie Reserve at www.steptoebutte.org. It says the butte is home to the federally threatened Spalding’s catchfly as well as two rare lilies, a native orchid and the rare Palouse thistle.
While the Bassetts hope to resell the land for preservation, a Washington State Parks spokeswoman said there’s currently not money to buy it.
But the state parks department is interested in the property and its future, spokeswoman Virginia Painter said.
Any decision to purchase the land would have to fit into the long-range plans for state parks, and the state parks commission would have authority over any purchase.
“We are always going to have an interest in what’s going on around us,” she said.
The state has an ownership interest in the road that circles Steptoe Butte three times, cutting through the private land bought by the Bassetts.
C.D. “Butch” Booker, an auctioneer and real estate broker who handled the property auction, said the sellers are relatives of Clive Roberts, who bought the land in about 1940.
“It is a special piece of property,” he said. “There is only one Steptoe Butte in the world.”
Bassett said he’d been interested in acquiring land in the Palouse, possibly along the breaks above the Snake River, which are known for good hunting. He said he learned of the Steptoe Butte auction in one of Booker’s real estate notices.
Bassett said he talked with preservationists in Whitman County, who urged him to purchase the butte property.
One of the conservationists has agreed to help finance part of the purchase price, he said.
“We have no personal need to buy this,” Bassett said. But the couple also didn’t want to see the land disturbed by farming or other development. He said he and his wife see the acquisition as an effort to create a legacy.
“I think it is a worthy cause,” he said.
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