Nature Conservancy set to buy up 10,000 acres of forestland for 'protection' near Yakima

By David Lester
Yakima Herald-Republic staff reporter


OAK CREEK, Yakima County A tract of forestland considered one of the most ecologically diverse areas along the east slopes of the Cascades is poised for permanent protection.

The Nature Conservancy of Washington announced yesterday it has purchased an existing option to buy almost 10,000 acres of privately owned forestland in the Tieton River Canyon, adjacent to the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, 20 miles northwest of Yakima.

Cost of the property could be as high as $9 million, making it the most expensive venture by the conservancy in its 25-year history in Washington, said Leslie Brown of Seattle, conservancy-community and media-relations manager.

The purchase of Plum Creek Timber Co. land will occur with public as well as private funds and is expected to occur in phases over the next four years.

The area includes some of the last stands of old-growth Ponderosa pine and the northernmost stands of forest oak in the state.

Sponsors are calling the area a key link between the upland forest and the shrub steppe habitat of the Yakima Valley and Columbia Basin. It provides migration routes for game such as bighorn sheep, elk and deer, as well as homes for a variety of birds, including raptors, owls and songbirds.

Preservation projects

Washington has about 42 million acres of public lands. However, more than 50 percent of the state is owned by private parties. In Yakima County, The Nature Conservancy has helped with four preservation projects about 1,300 acres of land along the Yakima River Canyon, the Yakima River and the Moxee Bog Preserve. During the past three years, the Nature Conservancy purchased nearly 30,000 acres in Washington, including last year's purchase of 16,000 acres in Douglas County, north of Yakima.

The nearby Tieton River, which parallels Highway 12 through the area destined for purchase, is home to bull trout and steelhead, both listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

"This is a mixing zone where all species come together," said Betsy Bloomfield, the Conservancy's South Central Washington program manager. "These transitional zones are incredibly rich places."

Ken Bevis of Yakima, a state habitat biologist who also is working on the purchase, called the area a wildlife crossroads for a wide range of species that are of interest to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Bevis submitted a $2.25 million grant application to the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program during the current legislative session. The funding would come from the state capital budget and would purchase about a quarter of the property. Federal funds also are being sought.

In addition to the state Fish and Wildlife Department, The Nature Conservancy has a diverse network of partners in the project, including the U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, The Audubon Society and the Yakima Kayak Club.

Plum Creek, which owns more than 8 million acres of land nationwide, has 210,000 acres of forest holdings in Washington.

Robin Wood, a Plum Creek corporate-affairs officer in Seattle said, "A lot of our land in Washington isn't the easiest place to do business. Because of our vast holdings, we are able to do these good-faith things that put land in public ownership."

Plum Creek has completed 71 of these conservation sales nationwide that have placed 250,000 acres in public ownership.


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