Over the course of a decade, the forested “Heart of the Cascades” region in Kittitas County has presented a rare opportunity to secure vital wildlife habitat and public access for hikers, campers, hunters and anglers – tourism that is a primary economic driver for the region.
“The wildlife values here were like nothing we’d ever seen on a landscape like this,” says Rance Block, retired Washington lands manager for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
The application for the fourth and final phase of the Heart of the Cascades project has now been submitted for funding from the state Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP) grant program, which provides matching grants for key conservation projects throughout the state.
The project would complete the purchase of private “checkerboard” parcels on the east slope of the central Cascades between the Wenas and L.T. Murray Wildlife Areas. This last piece of the puzzle would protect 4,014 acres of critical migration corridors for elk, muledeer, bighorn sheep, salmon and steelhead, and ensure recreational access for all Washingtonians.
“A lot of businesses [in the area] provide a service for hunters, campers, fisherman,” explains George Michel, local business owner of MiDee Stitch Saddle & Tack Repair. “If we didn’t have the availability of public lands…those little businesses are going to die off.”
Even community members who may have never set foot in the area’s conifer forests would benefit from the clean, reliable water supply that this project would secure.
Half of the necessary $4 million in funding is now secured through a grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which reinvests royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling that occurs in public waters.
That’s a reason to celebrate, but there is still work left to do.
State legislators will have to dedicate at least $95 million to the WWRP in order for Heart of the Cascades to receive funding. The Coalition is advocating for $97 million from WWRP this year, to ensure success for this and many other vital projects.
With broad support from the community and numerous benefits to the county’s economy and natural resources, this is an extraordinary opportunity for our legislators to lead the way to permanently protect Heart of the Cascades.