Copyright 2001 The Seattle Times Company
Local News : Tuesday, January 09, 2001

Cherished land in Methow protected
By Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times staff reporter

MAZAMA, Okanogan County - The Trust for Public Land (TPL) is expected to announce today the permanent conservation of 1,020 acres in the Methow Valley in a deal that ends one of the longest-running and most bitter land-use wars in the Northwest.

The TPL purchased the land, once envisioned as a downhill ski resort for 17,000 skiers a day, for about $17 million, including interest on loans and the cost of removing a road and burying utility lines.

It is reselling the land in five parcels to private buyers who agree to develop only a single home on their parcel.

The land deal has the support of Republican lawmakers and local officials, a significant shift in a county starved for jobs and tax revenues.

Keeping the land in private ownership was key to gaining that support. So was retaining public access to a recreational trail through the property. The more than 200-kilometer, groomed trail is the second longest in the country and provides some of the finest cross-country skiing in North America.

More than 18 rare and protected species live on or near the property, which follows four miles of the Methow River, home to endangered chinook salmon, steelhead and threatened bull trout. Lynx, bear and wolves also roam the land.

The TPL has committed to transferring development rights for the property to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. However, doing so will depend on funding from the state Legislature and fish-habitat money from the Bonneville Power Administration.

Three parcels have already been purchased; the TPL is looking for two more buyers. It is also seeking a buyer for the development rights for a sixth property put entirely into conservation to protect spotted-owl habitat.

Ali Long, a 32-year-old philanthropist from Ketchum, Idaho, bought one of the parcels --151 acres of meadow and forest that give way to the Methow River and a clear view of the towering face of Goat Wall.

The presence of the public trail on her property only increased her interest, Long said.

"I thought that was one of the most wonderful things about it," Long said. "I believe land is to be conserved, but also to be enjoyed."

She bought the land for $3.3 million, a portion of which can be written off as a charitable donation because of the transfer of development rights.

Preservation of the property creates another link in the wilderness chain that stretches north to the Pasayten Wilderness and Canada and south to the Lake Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness.

Restricting development on the property also helps preserve water quality and sustains flows for salmon.

Okanogan County Commissioner Dave Schulz said he hated to lose the tax revenue and jobs from the resort proposals, but sees promise in the land deal.

"It's a blow. But we can pick up and put even more emphasis on that sports trail.

"That trail is very beneficial. It's been better for our economy than downhill skiing would have been. It spreads the people out and they get to see nature."

Ultimately it was a fight over water rights that doomed the most recent vision for the property: Arrowleaf Resort, developed by real-estate and timber company R.D. Merrill.

A proposed destination golf and cross-country ski resort, Arrowleaf sank last year after years of waiting for water rights from the state Department of Ecology.

"We are disappointed of course," said Charlie Wright, CEO of the company, which invested $20 million in the Arrowleaf project.

"We put a lot of heart and soul and time and money into a vision that didn't happen. But this vision and destiny for the property is certainly a good alternative."

Wright said the Arrowleaf project was conceived "to do something great for the state of Washington. No good deed goes unpunished."

Doug Devin, 72, of Mazama, one of the first to propose development of the property back in 1969, hung in through various development plans until 1992.

He sees a unique opportunity lost.

"The secret, and why a downhill ski resort would have been successful, is a mountain with a 4,000-foot drop with northern exposure that ends in private property. It's the real-estate development that pays for the lifts and all the amenities people want."

Such talk riles people like Vicky Welch, who farms organic potatoes, garlic and medicinal herbs on 17 acres in nearby Twisp.

She and other activists with the Methow Valley Citizens Council fought every version of the ski resort.

Welch ultimately spent nearly half her life fighting the projects and says she has worked as everything from an apple picker to an elementary-school librarian just to be able to live here.

"The best use of this property is not another housing development," Welch said. The land deal caps 15 years of work by the TPL, said Craig Lee, a Seattle-based vice president for the trust.

"As owners have come and gone we have knocked on the door each time," Lee said. He credited R.D. Merrill with making the land deal possible.

"This seller seemed more committed to helping us do this and giving us a true shot at it. It really felt like this was it, or the property was going to be cut up piecemeal and sold.

"Environmentalists and developers have been playing this game of chicken for 30 years. Our organization was more committed than ever to finally resolving this."

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