State OKs $1.8M toward McWhorter Ranch
The Washington State Legislature has approved $1.8 million toward buying McWhorter Ranch land on the south side of Rattlesnake Mountain.
"It's a beautiful property," said Jeff Tayer, regional director for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
If the land is purchased, public access is expected to be allowed on the land, which extends from the flats to the top of the mountain, where it borders the Arid Land Ecology Reserve of the Hanford Reach National Monument. The reserve is closed to the public.
However, $1.8 million will not be enough to purchase the 13,400-acre ranch.
Fish and Wildlife hopes to begin the process of appraising the land and starting negotiations with the family, said Tayer.
"We hope to buy it in pieces or to attract funding," he said.
The state agency had proposed buying the ranch using a $3.5 million grant from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, which uses the state's bonding capacity to preserve critical habitat.
The purchase was ranked third in priority on a list of Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program critical habitat projects, but the state capital budget approved by the Legislature did not stretch to the full $3.5 million because bonding capacity was limited to control state debt.
But approval of $1.8 million was good news, said Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, after the House approved the capital budget. "It's headed in the right direction," he said.
In the Senate, Jerome Delvin, R-Wash., worked for the purchase.
The grant money will have to be paid back by the state, but it's not money that can be used for needs such as schools or basic health care.
The 13,400 acres have been part of a working cattle ranch and include classic shrub steppe habitat with sagebrush and native grasses. It also has large canyons and draws with springs and riparian vegetation.
The land is important for wildlife habitat to prevent development of wind turbines, houses and vineyards on land that ferruginous hawks call home. The hawks are listed in Washington as threatened with extinction, and fewer than 40 breeding pairs remain in southeastern Washington.
The land also is used by other priority species, including the burrowing owl, long-billed curlew, Townsend's ground squirrel, American badger, black- and white-tailed jackrabbit, sage sparrow, sage thrasher, elk and mule deer.
The land also is unique because of the McWhorter history in the early part of the 20th century -- and even earlier -- as a prominent ranch family, Tayer said.
"We want to celebrate the history of early settlers in the Benton County area," he said.
The ranch was owned by R.J. McWhorter of Prosser until his death in a four-wheeler accident at the age of 86 in November 2007.
The state's policy is to use a voluntary, nonregulatory approach to conserve habitat, and the McWhorter family will decide whether to sell to the state.
The state has been working with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Nature Conservancy to draw on their experience in transactions to preserve land, Tayer said. It also has been working with Benton County for almost a decade, and the county would be its partner on management plans for the land, Tayer said.
If the land is acquired, nonmotorized public access is expected to be allowed. That would include recreation that's compatible with wildlife habitat, including hiking, horseback riding, bird watching and some hunting, Tayer said.
"I think we have a strong desire to work with the community on its future," he said.