McWhorter Ranch funds big win for Mid-Columbia
A lot of painful cuts were made to get to the capital budget that finally was passed by the Washington Legislature this year.
But there were some bright spots that came as nice rewards after a long and difficult five months that our lawmakers spent in Olympia.
One of the unexpected survivors in the budget was money toward the purchase of McWhorter Ranch land on the south side of Rattlesnake Mountain.
The $1.8 million approved isn't enough to buy the whole 13,400-acre ranch, but it is a good start for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which hopes to buy the land in pieces or to draw in other sources of funding to acquire the whole property. Fish and Wildlife had hoped for $3.5 million to buy the entire spread, but getting a little more than half still was a victory in this budget cycle.
If the state buys the ranch, it is expected that the public will be allowed access to the property, which extends from the flats to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain and borders the Arid Land Ecology Reserve of the Hanford Reach National Monument.
Money for the ranch was the third highest priority on the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program critical habitat projects. The land has been a cattle ranch and has areas of classic shrub steppe and native grasses.
The ranch is home to the ferruginous hawk, burrowing owl, long-billed curlew, Townsend's ground squirrel, American badger, jackrabbits, sage sparrow, sage thrasher, elk and mule deer.
It's important to keep the ranch out of the hands of developers who might see it as prime space for wind turbines, vineyards or houses. Preserving the area for wildlife is a key. The ferruginous hawks are threatened with extinction, with only 40 breeding pairs remaining in southeastern Washington. Many other species on the ranch are priorities for preservation as well.
The McWhorter family lost the family patriarch, R.J., at age 86 in a four-wheeler accident a few years ago. It will be up to the family to decide whether to sell the land to the state. Given their history here as a well-known ranching family for close to a century, we bet they would like to see the land preserved intact.
The state is looking for guidance from other groups that have worked on preservation projects, like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Nature Conservancy. Benton County also would be a partner on management plans for the ranch.
State officials say access would be nonmotorized and for activities that fit with the wildlife preserve, like hiking, horseback riding, bird watching and even some hunting.
After 60 years of severely limited access to Rattlesnake Mountain, that would be a huge win for all of us.