Bill Lucia

(Washington State Standard) Washington has secured a $15.3 million federal grant for the purchase of nearly 10,000 acres of forestland around the headwaters of the Yakima River, near Cle Elum.

The Department of Natural Resources, which would manage the land once the sale is complete, announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture award on Monday and noted $5.7 million in state matching funds to carry out the acquisition. The Department of Natural Resources has indicated that the land will be used for a mix of recreation, conservation, and logging.

Specifics around how that land use will look aren’t certain at this point and there are still more steps before the purchase can go through.

A key priority is to reduce forest fire risks. Decades of wildfire suppression have left land like this thick with trees and other vegetation that becomes dry and flammable in summer.

Mike Stevens, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Washington called the federal grant “a gamechanger for this treasured landscape in Central Washington.” Washington Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz described the pending addition of state land as “monumental.”

The purchase is also meant as a bulwark against “checkerboarding,” where land becomes fragmented among different public and private owners and, as a result, more difficult to manage. This phenomenon is rooted in how the federal government divvied parts of the West to help foster and subsidize transcontinental railroad construction during the mid to late 1800s.

Known as Cle Elum Ridge, the 9,700-acre tract the state plans to buy is tucked off Interstate 90, north of Cle Elum, Roslyn, Ronald, and Suncadia. It abuts national forest land that sprawls into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. And it’s adjacent to the roughly 50,000-acre Teanaway Community Forest, which the Department of Natural Resources already manages.

“There’s just a lot of water and wildlife and recreation opportunity,” said James Schroeder, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Washington.

Cle Elum Ridge is part of nearly 50,000 acres between Snoqualmie Pass and Ellensburg that Central Cascades Forest LLC bought from Plum Creek Timber Co. in 2014. (Plum Creek merged in 2015 with forestry giant Weyerhaeuser.)

The Nature Conservancy partnered with Central Cascades Forest on the 2014 deal. “Conservation-minded funders” pooled money for the LLC, according to Schroeder. The idea was to pause real estate development on a massive track of ecologically sensitive and fire-prone forestland.

“We’ve been working over the last 10 years to put that land into permanent protection,” Schroeder said, adding that this has involved community engagement and conversations with local, state, and federal agencies and tribes to identify who’s best positioned to own and manage the land in the long-term.

Since 2014, Central Cascades Forest has sold some of the land to the U.S. Forest Service.

In the meantime, The Nature Conservancy has managed land held by the LLC, including Cle Elum Ridge. The conservation nonprofit has selectively logged parts of the land and carried out prescribed burns to reduce wildfire risk. In 2017, the Jolly Mountain Fire, sparked by lightning, burned about 37,000 acres in the area, including some land managed by the nonprofit.

The Nature Conservancy has also studied the effects of different types of treed landscapes on snowpack – a critical water source for agricultural irrigation in the Yakima Basin.

Schroeder said how the Cle Elum Ridge tract is managed going forward would depend on Department of Natural Resources decisions and how the land is classified – for example whether it’s added to Teanaway Community Forest or to the portfolio of lands the state makes available for industrial logging.

He also explained that the final price for the land isn’t entirely clear, as it will be sold at fair market value based on timber appraisals that haven’t been done yet.

“It’s an incredibly beautiful piece of property,” Schroeder said. “If you’re in the town of Ronald or Rosslyn or Cle Elum, having this in public ownership, you can literally walk out your back doors and connect from city-owned land to state-owned land to national or federally-owned land, all the way up into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness,” he added. “It’s tremendous connectivity for recreation but also for wildlife.”