ESA reform movement taking shape in county

By Ann McCreary
Methow Valley News

Methow Valley, WA - 5/29/02 - The Endangered Species Act was the target of about two dozen Okanogan County residents who met last week to discuss ways to reform the federal law that has prompted debates over water and property rights in the county in recent years.

Sponsored by the Okanogan County Farm Bureau, the meeting at the county fairgrounds on Wednesday (May 22) was held to create local support for reforming the ESA, and to let Okanogan County residents know about national ESA reform efforts.

The ESA reform group was a spinoff of much larger public meetings held earlier this spring focusing on the state’s Road Maintenance and Abandonment Plans (RMAPs)—new regulations that require property owners to develop plans to maintain road conditions to improve fish and wildlife habitat. Discussion during the meeting often returned to the potential impact of the new and more strict road maintenance requirements.

Kathy Power, a real estate broker who is chairman of the ESA reform committee for the Okanogan Farm Bureau, said the ESA is "at the top of the pyramid" of laws that she says are infringing on the rights of property owners. Power told the meeting that the federal designation of salmon and steelhead as endangered or threatened in the upper Columbia and Methow rivers has prompted the state to adopt laws that have "stolen many private property ownership rights in our counties."

Power and other property owners at the meeting objected to regulations adopted last year by the state’s Forest Practices Board, which will require private property owners to maintain roads on forest land to more stringent state-approved standards, or to abandon them. Power told the gathering that the state regulations could hamper land sales, because they hold the seller responsible for road improvements, even after property is transferred.

According to Power, the state Department of Natural Resources has begun sending notifications about the RMAP requirements to landowners in Okanogan County.

"People can’t sell their land now…because people aren’t going to pay unknown costs" for road improvements on their property, she said.

Some participants at the meeting objected to the state’s intention to survey private forest lands to determine if roads comply with new standards. And they said that construction required to improve roads or abandon them could cause erosion and runoff that will damage fish and wildlife habitat.

Darlene Hajny, the county Farm Bureau’s public information officer, told the meeting that the Farm Bureau is focusing opposition on the RMAP process "because that is the one area they (state officials) can come on your land and have access to your land."

While much of the discontent expressed at the meeting focused on state regulations, Power said the real culprit is the federal law.

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