Outdoors enthusiasts hoping High Lakes area can find buyers —

Outdoors enthusiasts hoping High Lakes area can find buyers

Tom Paulu, The Daily News Online, October 12, 2008

No state money will be available any time soon to purchase the High Lakes near Mount St. Helens for public use.

But several groups are trying to find money from other sources to buy a portion of the area long popular with hunters and anglers.

Last year, Weyerhaeuser Co. sold 4,100 acres of forest land near Elk, Hanaford, Forest and Fawn lakes to two men from the Tacoma area.

Before the sale, Weyerhaeuser allowed walk-in access to the trout-stocked lakes most of the year, and the company opened its gates for hunting season.

The new owners, Kurt Erickson and Fred Wagner, have sold a few of the parcels -- though county regulations may make development on the land difficult.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife applied for $556,396 from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program to buy 240 acres around Elk and Hanaford lakes. Several weeks ago, the DFW's application was inadvertently included on a list of projects the recreation program said it hoped to fund in the state's next two-year budget cycle, which starts July 1.

In fact, purchase of the lakes actually ranks 25th out of 27 applications for water access property. Only the top 12 projects on the list would be funded if the Legislature maintains the program's current level of funding — $100 million — despite a projected $3 billion budget deficit.

With state funding not on the horizon, the DFW is looking for other groups to help fund a purchase, such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Nature Conservancy.

Chuck Leidy, regional lands agent for the DFW, said he's met with Erickson and Wagner, who have formed St. Helens Property LLC.

"They indicated a willingness to continue to work with us," Leidy said.

Jessica Walz, conservation director of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force environmental group, said the land owners are open to selling the lakes to preserve public access. "We hope we can try to find money before any development goes on," Walz said.

Erickson and Wagner didn't return phone calls from The Daily News.

The properties are no longer being marketed by the outdoors company Cabela's, which drew criticism from some hunters and fishermen for getting involved in deals that exclude them from lands.

Even if High Lakes parcels are scooped up by individuals, their development options are limited.

The area straddles the Cowlitz-Skamania county line, and land use regulations in the counties differ.

According to the Skamania County Assessor's office, a parcel that includes the bottom part of Hanaford Lake has been sold, along with another parcel nearby. Skamania County has a development moratorium on its portion of the High Lakes.

The county will soon zone the land for commercial resources, said Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce.

That will allow harvesting of timber or other forest products, Pearce said. "It's not residential. It's not recreational in the sense of cabins," though a public park could be established, he said.

"People are buying it," Pearce said. "I'm not sure why. In the long and short, they can't do anything with it. You could fence it off."

Pearce said one of Skamania County's concerns is that it's hard to provide government services to the area. The only public road access to that corner of Skamania County is through Cowlitz County, over Spirit Lake Memorial Highway.

Pearce said he's frustrated that Cowlitz County hasn't enacted a similar building moratorium on its adjacent lands, which include Fawn Lake.

So is Walz. "We've been trying to get Cowlitz County to do a building moratorium, just so it can buy more time," Walz said.

Mark Smith, who used to operate tourist activities at the High Lakes and is now chairman of the Cowlitz County Planning Commission, said better land use planning is needed.

The Cowlitz commissioners "haven't stepped up to the plate," Smith said.

Cowlitz County Commissioner Axel Swanson said his board has discussed such a moratorium, though it wouldn't be appropriate to enact one because of just one area of development. Skamania County, by contrast, is also dealing with extensive residential development along Swift Reservoir on the south side of Mount St. Helens.

A covenant for one of the High Lakes parcels sold said lots may be used only as single-family residential property, and that RVs aren't allowed more than 90 days per year.

However, Swanson said, "I don't know if someone could build a home up there" under current Cowlitz County regulations.

Cowlitz County doesn't have zoning for the land in question. The county is in the early stages of revising its 1976 comprehensive land use plan, and its too early to say how the new plan will affect the High Lakes.

Swanson is concerned with allowing residences along what are now steep, rough logging roads. The nearest ambulance with a paramedic is in Castle Rock, about 45 miles away.

Swanson said if more than four homes are built along a road, it needs to be brought up to county standards.

For now, the land around the lakes is pretty much the same as it's been for years. Access to the land is gated, both from the Spirit Lake and Green River sides, Smith said, though walk-in hunters are apparently allowed.

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