Washington forest managers yesterday OKed transferring nearly 1,300 acres near Wenatchee — land that at one time had been eyed for cherry orchards and before that for private development — to the state’s wildlife agency instead.
But DNR also approved selling 30 acres along the Chehalis River over WDFW’s concerns.
We’ll take the deals one at a time:
THE FORMER IS FOR two sections,16 and 22, which sit high above the Chelan County seat in the Stemilt Basin and were the subject of articles in the Wenatchee World and Northwest Sportsman that scrutinized a proposed deal between the Department of Natural Resources and the Mathison family.
The orchardists had been interested in growing cherries on them because they’d ripen later in the season and be more valuable on the market, but local sportsmen opposed the deal because it would impact wildlife corridors.
Now, the land will remain deer and elk habitat, and stay open for hunting and other recreational activities.
“This action by the (Board of Natural Resources) will enable WDFW to protect habitat used by many species in the Stemilt Basin,” said Jim Brown, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s regional director in Ephrata. “We are pleased to participate in the Stemilt Partnership and especially happy to work with the local community on a project that has such broad public support. The DNR staff also deserves thanks for their efforts.”
The deal was approved Tuesday at the board’s early January meeting. Under it, WDFW will pay nearly $2 million to DNR, which will use the money to buy replacement timberland “that is more suitable” to fund school construction.
It follows on a similar-sized transfer here between DNR and WDFW in 2013.
The Stemilt Partnership, which includes state, county, federal, sportsmen’s, irrigation and agricultural interests, was formed around 10 years ago when DNR proposed selling the four sections to developers.
The Mathisons still plan on putting in cherry orchards on a high-elevation section they own, and have secured a right-of-way through Section 16 to access it.
That disappointed Jerry Gutzwiler of the Wenatchee Sportsman’s Association, according to a Capital Press article last month. He worried the hustle and bustle of agriculture might disrupt spring elk calving.
WDFW’s Fish and Wildlife Commission is expected to seal the deal at its mid-January meeting.
IN OTHER NEWS FROM THE MEETING, the Board of Natural Resources signed off on selling three parcels along the south bank of the Chehalis River near Oakville for $30,000 to the Chehalis Tribe, whose reservation is on the north bank.
DNR said the trees there are in the riparian zone and therefore couldn’t be cut, and the tribe had expressed interest in the land as it edges an old railroad right-of-way they own.
The deal only came to light in late December when it caught the eye of state Rep. Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen), who expressed concern given what happened with state access to the lower Skokomish River last year.
WDFW’s regional manager Michele Culver testified before the board and said that while her agency wasn’t opposed to the deal, it wanted to ensure that public access to that part of the Chehalis River was maintained.
“The Chehalis River is important for recreational fishing, and the Chehalis Tribe’s reservation boundary relative to the river is a ‘gray area’ from a legal perspective, which complicates our co-management of fisheries with the Tribe,” Culver told board members.
She asked for a delay on the decision to give WDFW and DNR time to talk it over, but the board voted 4-1 in favor.
DNR project manager Robert Winslow told Northwest Sportsman the deal “is only a conveyance of upland property and that the legal description of the conveyed property in Exhibit A of the board resolution excludes from the conveyance the aquatic ownership of the Chehalis River.”
The specific language in the deed states “Excepting therefrom the beds and shores of navigable water up to the line of ordinary high water.”
However, the worry is that this could lead to something like what’s happened on the lower Skokomish.
There, the Skokomish Tribe claimed the entire river after it got a federal solicitor’s opinion on mid-1800s treaty language, and anglers were subsequently barred from fishing it for Chinook reared at WDFW’s nearby salmon hatchery.
The Chehalis River hosts returns of coho, Chinook and steelhead that are fished on by tribal and nontribal fishermen alike.
Culver says WDFW understands that DNR’s 30 acres were above the water line.
“However, as the ownership of the river itself is still not clearly defined, we think it would have been helpful if the agreement between DNR and the Chehalis Tribe explicitly preserved public access to the river, which could have been accomplished by adding a provision to the agreement,” she says.