Final Heart of the Cascades parcel likely a state priority —

Final Heart of the Cascades parcel likely a state priority

By Scott Sandsberry
Yakima Herald Republic

If funding is approved, the last vestige of checkerboard ownership would be removed from a critical stretch of wildlife habitat on the southern slopes of Manastash Ridge.

The $4 million plan to buy and then place those 4,014 acres under state control is part of $97 million in requests for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.

Nearly $27 million of that biennium budget request would be spent on about two dozen projects in Yakima, Kittitas and Klickitat counties, ranging from trail and park renovations to development easements to keeping large swaths of rural farmlands from being subdivided.

“For many rural communities, WWRP grants are the only way they will be able to complete much-needed recreation projects,” said John Roskelley, a former Spokane County Commissioner and a board member of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, the bipartisan collaboration that created the program a quarter-century ago. “Pretty much every town in Eastern Washington has a park, ballfield, playground or pool that has been funded by a WWRP grant.”

It’s unlikely the entire $97 million in requests will end up being funded as part of the state’s 2015-17 capital construction budget. Not since 2007 has the coalition’s request been fully realized in the final budget. In the three bieniums since, requests averaged $93 million, with an average of $59 million approved.

The coalition won’t prioritize its project list until later this summer, while the Legislature will consider the budget when it resumes its next session in January.

But the Manastash Ridge proposal, which would complete the three-phase Heart of the Cascades process, is almost certain to be a high priority. The coalition has consistently ranked it at or near the top of all critical habitat projects statewide.

The project’s two previous acquisitions placed into state Department of Fish and Wildlife ownership nearly 22 square miles nestled between the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area and the Wenatchee National Forest’s Naches Ranger District. Eradicating checkerboard ownership that could diminish forage or impede wildlife migration — in this case muledeer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, eagles and northern spotted owls — has become a primary focus of public land managers.

That strategy is evident in some of the higher-dollar projects in the WWRP request, which included $7.7 million in projects based in Yakima County, $6.2 million in Kittitas County and a whopping $12.7 million in Klickitat County.

Three proposed grants totaling about $3.5 million in Yakima County and two in Klickitat County worth $7.5 million are for “conservation easement” projects, basically to prevent future development on roughly 3,000 acres of rural ranch land and forests.

“Farmers apply for conservation easements for their farmland, so the state purchases the development rights off the land so it will remain farmland in perpetuity,” said coalition spokeswoman Frances Dinger, explaining the everyone-wins scenario: With no development potential on their land, the farmers get lower property taxeswhile the state land managers get to keep wildlife corridors from turning into neighborhoods.

“It allows (farmers) to keep working their land,” Dinger said, “so they don’t feel like the only choice they have is to sell.”

Other Yakima County requests include $500,000 to renovate Yakima’s Randall Park and $362,500 to turn a 5.3-acre Selah parcel into an “inclusive playground” designed to be used by children of all abilities and disabilities.

Read the complete story at Yakima Herald Republic
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