State buying rights to land on Konnowac Pass —

State buying rights to land on Konnowac Pass

David Lester, Yakima Herald Republic, Apr. 15, 2008

Washington state will spend more than $1.1 million to buy development rights on land near the proposed high-end Vineyards Resort near Konnowac Pass in the Rattlesnake Hills, southeast of Yakima.

The purchase of rights on 1,229 acres will preserve livestock grazing land as well as habitat considered key to the survival of sage grouse, a species now under review as a possible candidate for endangered species protection. Other species targeted under the purchase are jackrabbits and hawks, wildlife biologists said.

The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, a nonprofit group that lobbies the Legislature for money to protect and preserve parks and wildlife habitat, said the $576,000 matching grant is designed to counter offers from an unnamed land developer interested in a golf course and wine-touring resort.

Officials of The Vineyards, a 500-acre wine-themed resort and golf course off Nightingale Road, northwest of Zillah, say the offer didn't come from them.

"It could be anyone," said Gary Scott, a Vineyards partner.

Scott said he made offers to purchase additional property for the resort several years ago.

But that effort ended in 2005 when The Vineyards obtained 120 acres from Holtzinger Fruit Co., which gave the project enough acreage for the golf course and nearly 600 dwellings, from single-family homes to vacation rental property.

The actual amount to be paid for the rights won't be known until an appraisal of the property's value is completed, said Ginna Correa, coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's Landowner Incentive Program. The amounts allocated for the purchase, however, are thought to be close to the final figure.

Identity of the landowner is not being released because the purchase isn't complete.
Preservation funds come from the state capital budget that is approved by lawmakers. Lawmakers agreed in 2005 to add farmland preservation as a component of the program, known as the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.
Correa's program will pay 25 percent of the purchase cost and the remaining 25 percent is still being sought.

Mike Livingston, a state wildlife biologist in Pasco, said the sage grouse is of concern to state wildlife officials because its habitat has been carved up for development.

Two main populations remain in Washington, including one on the U.S. Army's Yakima Training Center, north of Yakima.

The other is in Douglas County.

"Over the last 100 years, we have converted a lot of their historic habitat to agriculture, highways and houses. The remaining habitat has been degraded in quality and the sage grouse," Livingston said. "They are extremely sensitive to habitat quality."

Livingston said the area for which development rights are being purchased provides habitat and a corridor to reach other segments of habitat for several species, including sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird that can be 30 inches in length and two feet tall.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting the status review of sage grouse.

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