Little Naches River land purchase to aid water supply, wildlife
These are heady times for those who make it their business to protect water resources and recreational access to some of the most ruggedly beautiful pieces of the Cascades’ eastern slopes.
After the uncertainty of last year, when an initial budget bill included nothing for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Congress recently approved $306 million for the fund’s higher-priority projects.
One of those projects involves $3 million for the first of a four-phase purchase of 9,200 acres in the headwaters of the Little Naches River in southwest Kittitas County. The first phase involves the purchase from Plum Creek Timber of 2,900 acres — two tracts near Naches Pass and Pyramid Peak, one of them abutting the Pacific Crest Trail, and two tracts 8 miles to the east near Mount Clifty.
“This (Little Naches) acquisition provides dual benefits in that it secures these lands for future recreational access, while fulfilling another component of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan,” said Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell, referring to a groundbreaking collaborative effort to secure long-term water supplies for irrigators and wildlife. “When you can kill two birds with one stone like that, everybody wins.”
The Little Naches project — the latest in a series of efforts to eradicate checkerboard ownership in the Cascade foothills — puts the purchased land under Forest Service control. So highly sought was this purchase that it ranked third nationally among all Forest Service projects seeking funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
“We’re looking to safeguard the water supplies going down into the farmlands,” said Karen Macdonald, spokeswoman for Trust for Public Land, which along with Forterra has been facilitating the Plum Creek-to-Forest Service sale.
“This is simply sensible management of the checkerboard land,” Macdonald added. “This is Plum Creek working with the Forest Service, consolidating their holdings in a way that’s more sensible for everybody, and the benefits are principally water and wildlife.”
Another project green-lit by last month’s omnibus bill passage involves $4 million earmarked for the Klickitat Canyon Working Forest in Klickitat Canyon, to preserve public access and animal migration pathways by ensuring that the scenic river canyon is never subdivided into residential developments.
Last week, the conservation community — including those pushing for the remaining phases of the Little Naches River project — got even more exciting news with the release of President Barack Obama’s proposed budget, which called for fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million.
But that won’t necessarily happen. Congress created the fund in 1965 as a way to invest $900 million annually into parks and outdoor recreation, not from taxpayer dollars, but entirely from offshore oil and gas lease revenue. Since then, only once (in 1998) has the entire $900 million been available for LWCF projects, and eight times since 1990 the total has been under $300 million.
Last year, Obama called for $600 million for the LWCF, but the eventual funding bill provided $306 million.
“Even though it’s a trust fund, Congress has to go through the appropriations process each year, and each year a large amount gets appropriated for other things,” said LWCF campaign director Hannah Clark. “Given the budget right now and given the rest of the Interior Department, (the 2014 fiscal year’s $306 million) is actually a really good show of support from our Congress for our land and water fund, because it was marginally higher than last year.”
However, the LWCF is on tenuous ground. Its current 25-year authorization runs out in 2015, when it will have to be reauthorized.
“The nation is at risk of losing its premier program to protect parks, forests, trails and waters for our families,” said Joanna Grist, executive director of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. “This program has always seen great bipartisan support, and with reauthorization in 2015 we need to see a concerted push from our members of Congress now more than ever.”
That fear, though, is a year off. For now, conservation leaders in the Yakima Basin are feeling a bit celebratory after the purchase of the Teanaway Community Forest and last month’s approval of funds for the Little Naches purchase.
“This was a monumental effort involving numerous shareholders,” said Jewell, the Kittitas County commissioner. “We’ve been pretty successful so far. Hopefully we’ll be just as successful with the other components of the plan.”