A young couple watched the sunset Thursday evening from a rocky high point in the hills below Mica Peak.
Families with young kids hiked the dusty trails below them. Snakes slithered through the golden-brown grasses. A western meadowlark sang its flute-like song.
The Saltese Uplands Conservation Area, southeast of Spokane Valley, is a popular spot among locals and wildlife alike. It’s 552 acres of open foothills on the edge of suburbia.
And it’s about to get 10% bigger.
Spokane County plans to buy 55 acres of property on the uplands’ northwest corner, adjacent to the city of Liberty Lake’s southwest boundary. The county is getting a major discount on the property. The sales price will be $340,000, roughly half what the parcel might fetch on the open market.
The 55 acres already feel like part of the official conservation area.
Paul Knowles, Spokane County’s parks planning, development and real estate manager, said visitors have been treating it as if it were public property. They’ve beaten informal trails into the ground over time with “feet, hoofs and tires,” he said.
The Inland Northwest Land Conservancy currently owns the 55 acres. The organization bought the land a few years ago with the intent of selling it to Spokane County.
Carol Corbin, the conservancy’s director of philanthropy and communications, said the original owner didn’t want the land developed but had to sell it. So the Land Conservancy bought the property and held onto it until Spokane County could buy it and add it to the conservation area.
“The seller was very conservation-minded,” she said, adding that the man wanted to remain anonymous. “He was very good to us in the purchase price.”
Spokane County bought the Saltese Uplands Conservation Area in 2011 for $1.2 million. Knowles called it a “gift of the Great Recession.”
The land had foreclosed and gone to AmericanWest Bank. But the bank was failing.
“They had to unload this property,” Knowles said.
Knowles said Mark Pinch, a local real estate agent and trail lover, helped persuade AmericanWest Bank to sell to the county for 50% of what it was worth.
The Saltese Uplands are one of many properties Spokane County has acquired as part of the Conservation Futures program.
The Conservation Futures program collects money through a small tax on Spokane County property owners. In 2021, the tax brought in $2.2 million. Those dollars help maintain existing conservation areas and buy new ones.
“It’s something that the Board of County Commissioners opts to do, and it’s been a significant tool in this county to acquire, preserve and create awesome places for people to recreate and for wildlife to live,” Knowles said.
Some of Spokane County’s most recognizable outdoor recreation spaces were Conservation Futures acquisitions. The program helped pay for large portions of the Dishman Hills Natural Area, the James T. Slavin Conservation Area and Antoine Peak, to name a few. Since the Conservation Futures program began in 1994, Spokane County has acquired more than 9,000 acres of land for $47 million.
The additional 55 acres topped the Conservation Futures purchase priority list. Knowles said buying the property makes sense for a few reasons, including the fact that the land already has a trailhead. The county won’t have to build any new infrastructure.
Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said the purchase will be a great benefit for Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake residents.
These Conservation Futures purchases make it easier for people to spend time in nature, Kuney said. She said easily accessible open spaces are part of the reason so many people want to move to Spokane County.
“It’s a really spectacular area,” Knowles said. “This is just one more spectacular addition to it.”
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