LEWISTON – The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is seeking public comments associated with its exploration of acquiring more property in Asotin and Garfield counties.
The state agency is considering purchasing three properties in Asotin County, including 1,650 acres known as the Charlie Knight Ranch on Harlow Ridge, 643 acres at Green Gulch along lower Joseph Creek and 770 acres along the breaks of the Grande Ronde River that are part of the Four-O Ranch. It’s also looking at 720 acres near Grouse Flats in Garfield County.
Each of the properties borders land already owned and managed by the agency and would protect valuable fish and wildlife habitat while also providing access for outdoor recreation like hunting and fishing. They are among 18 conservation projects across the state the department officials are evaluating. Descriptions of each of the projects are available at wdfw.wa.gov/about/wdfw-lands/land-acquisitions.
Steve Pozzanghera, regional director for the department at Spokane, said the agency is in the midst of a process to determine if the projects should move forward and whether the agency should seek funding to make the acquisitions in the coming years. Pozzanghera said final decisions have not yet been made, but the properties fit well with the agency’s strategic effort to protect fish and wildlife as well as public recreation.
“I felt like I had a professional responsibility to move these projects to the application phase, the evaluation phase and the public involvement phase,” he said. “These are strategic (acquisitions) connected to existing Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife land that have value to fish and wildlife and contribute to public fish and wildlife opportunities, which are very important in southeastern Washington.”
The department has been active in purchasing land in the county over the past several years. The purchases have been controversial among many farmers and ranchers and others who believe the state already owns enough property in the sparsely populated county that is dependent on agriculture.
One of the potential sellers, Charlie Knight Ranch owner Mark Heuett, of Asotin, said he agrees with many of the complaints by those opposed to the state purchasing more private land in the county. For example, Heuett said during an interview that when state or federal agencies purchase private land, it comes off of tax rolls and increases the tax burden for other landowners, it erodes the land base where agriculture can happen and the department has been slow at times to treat weeds and maintain fences. He also said many people in the county are unhappy with the department’s management of wolves and said the animals are hammering big game herds and livestock alike, which influences people’s feelings toward the agency.
But Heuett said there have been several developments in recent years that should mitigate those concerns. He pointed to recent legislation that commits the department to fully fulfill its obligations to make payment in lieu of taxes to county governments. For several years, the Washington Legislature didn’t fully fund the program, and some counties were shorted on the amount they should have received.
“That is a big win for Asotin County that has 40,000 to 50,000 acres of public ground,” he said. “It takes away one of the major concerns and issues we have with ground being bought up by any state or federal agency.”
He is also pleased the agency has in recent years been more willing to allow some level of grazing, farming and timber management on the land it purchases. For example, the Four-O ranch on the breaks of the Grande Ronde River was sold with an agreement that farming and ranching would continue there for some time. The agency purchased the ranch in several phases and is exploring a final purchase there.
Heuett said animals like elk and deer benefit from ranching and farming, and the county’s agricultural economy will also benefit. In addition, grazing reduces fire risk, he said. Heuett plans to make his sale contingent on the state allowing him to continue to grow hay and run cattle on Harlow Ridge.
“There is a number of benefits, not only to the taxpayers with these new things the game department is agreeing to do. There is also a benefit to the wildlife. If we graze, the wildlife love it and they will be right there,” he said. “To Steve Pozzanghera’s credit, they have listened and they have been grazing and haying the Four-O cattle company just like it has been for many years, and I have expressed my desire for the Charlie Knight ranch to be managed the same way. I want to have good relations with all of my neighbors, and I want to sell that property so that it is still a producing and productive piece of ground.”
Pozzanghera said the agency’s willingness to allow grazing, farming and timber management on its land isn’t necessarily new, but he said it is more visible now than it has been in the past.
“What the department has done is really been able to appreciate those community values and to start to highlight the fact that we do in fact embrace those practices where appropriate,” he said. “We still have to realize the department is not in the livestock or agriculture business but can find livestock, timber and agriculture that is compatible with fish and wildlife and recreation.”
If the purchases move forward, it would make more land available to hunting and fishing, which also helps the economy said Stan Wilson, president of the Asotin County Sportsmen’s Association.
“People come from across the state in here to hunt and fish, and that brings dollars into the county and a whole lot of people don’t take that into consideration,” Wilson said.
His group is on record as supporting the purchase of the Green Gulch property and will soon make a decision on the Charlie Knight and Four-O properties. Wilson said his group wants to make sure payment in lieu of taxes are properly funded so county coffers don’t suffer.
“It is very important to us that the state continue to make those PILT payments,” he said.
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