Skamania clout limits preserve - State seeks to protect rare Oregon white oak; county officials fear further erosion of tax base

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

By KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian staff writer

A call from Skamania County Commissioner Bud Quinn last March was all it took for the Washington Department of Natural Resources to drop 680 acres from a proposed 1,656-acre rare Oregon white oak reserve at the west end of the Columbia River Gorge.

The state agency agreed to lop off the 40 percent of the Washougal Oaks Natural Resources Conservation Area located within Skamania County at the request of county commissioners even before it held a public hearing on the proposal in April.

Quinn said the county took a hard line on the issue because it cannot afford to have any more land removed from its tax base. Nearly 88 percent of Skamania County 937,916 acres is in public ownership. Another 10.6 percent is farmland and timberland in tax-deferred status.

"Only about 2 percent of our land is in full taxation," Quinn said. "If they're going to continue to take land from us, they need to pay us the full value of what the county would receive."

DNR officials agreed to the boundary change to avoid a political skirmish in the Legislature and risk losing the entire conservation area. At least one state legislator called department officials after the proposal surfaced to find out why Skamania County land was included.

The loss of the 680 acres doesn't significantly diminish the value of what remains, said botanist Birdie Davenport, a manager in the agency's Natural Areas Program who showed off the area last week.

"Quite a bit of that 680 acres is owned by the Forest Service, so it's already protected," she said. "We were OK with letting that go in order to avoid having the thing go really big in the Legislature and become a big issue."

Top priority

The Washington Natural Heritage Program, administered by DNR, has ranked Washougal Oaks as its No. 1 priority for land acquisition. The Legislature appropriated $2.43 million for the purchase of land to preserve and restore the rare groves of oak, among the largest and most pristine in western Washington. The groves extend from three miles east of Washougal in Clark County to Cape Horn in Skamania County.

Washougal Oaks was the only new nature preserve the Legislature funded this year. However, the $2.43 million is only a down payment on what is likely to be a lengthy and expensive process of negotiating with willing landowners to acquire their properties.

The Washougal Oaks Nature Preserve will be the first in Clark County. The most intact woodlands, encompassing 226 acres on steep ground just north of Highway 14, will have the additional designation of natural area preserve and will be the highest priority for purchase.

The state's 49 natural area preserves, ranging in size from five to 3,600 acres, are managed to protect high-quality examples of the state's native ecosystems and rare or unique plant and animal communities. Public access to these areas is typically limited.

Surrounding the core preserve on the west, north and east are other oak stands and rare plant communities. Those will be included in the natural resource conservation area, where low-impact activities like hiking and wildlife viewing typically are allowed.

Some woodlands, especially those on dry, steep, rocky slopes, are almost exclusively Oregon white oak. Others, on wetter sites, are mixed oak, bigleaf maple and Douglas fir. The rarest, ranked as "globally critically imperiled," are stands of oak, oval-leaf viburnum and poison oak.

Two extremely rare plants, bolandra and tall bugbane, grow on slopes below Cape Horn owned by the Forest Service and would have been included within the original boundaries of the conservation area.

On a walk near Cape Horn, Davenport was delighted to spot a specimen of tall bugbane, her first. The area is home to one of only seven known statewide occurrences of the delicate white-flowering plant in patches of 50 or more individual plants.

The Washougal Oaks area also harbors the slender-billed nuthatch, a bird known to be present only there and at one other site in Washington. The Cape Horn area provides habitat for the endangered peregrine falcon and the rare Larch Mountain salamander.

The entire area lies within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Land owners include the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Columbia Land Trust and private property owners like Richard Hamby.

Hamby owns 21.5 acres of oak woodlands east of Washougal. He has left the oaks standing even though they block his view of the gorge. "I didn't realize how rare the oaks were, but I knew they were unusual for this area," he said on a walking tour of his land.

He is building a house on his property and says he's willing to consider selling development rights to the state but is not yet ready to sell any of his land outright. "I'm not ruling out acquisition, but I don't want to move," he said.

The 70-foot-tall oaks on Hamby's property grow alongside bigleaf maples and Douglas firs, with thickets of Himalayan blackberry below. The non-native blackberry is the scourge of oak woodlands, crowding out other plants and leaving no open ground for acorns to sprout, Davenport said.

A century of fire suppression also has taken a toll on the handsome oaks, she said. Oregon white oak thrives on fire and even sprouts from fire-charred stumps. Douglas fir grows naturally with Oregon white oak, but the elimination of natural fire has allowed the tall conifers to overtake and shade out young oaks.

Because Oregon white oaks grow at lower elevations, many have been lost to development, Davenport said. They've been cut down to make room for subdivisions. "They've been landscaped into parks, so the understory is gone."

Under state ownership and management, the stands would be restored over time, the blackberries eradicated. That's unlikely to happen otherwise.

The Forest Service will provide some measure of protection for the oak stands, said national scenic area manager Dan Harkenrider, because identifying and protecting rare plant communities is part of the agency's mission in the scenic area.

The agency has no plans to cut any oak trees, he added. "The only cutting we are doing in the scenic area is to reduce fire risk in the urban-rural interface."

Curt Pavola, a manager in DNR's natural areas program, said ecologists found significant oak woodland features on private as well as Forest Service land in Skamania County. Private land in the area is zoned mainly for commercial forestry and large-scale agriculture.

"We'll work it out," Pavola said. "We'll let them know where the rare plants are."

Quick response

Skamania County commissioners discussed their opposition to including Skamania County in the new conservation area at a commission meeting after Ray Lasmanis, DNR's regional manager for Southwest Washington, invited them in a March 19 letter to help establish the area's boundary.

Quinn said he relayed the commissioners' opposition to DNR officials by phone. But the commissioners never put their objections in writing, and no county officials testified at the April public hearing.

That's because Judy Wilson, DNR's liaison to the counties, notified Quinn in a March 28 e-mail that the matter already had been dealt with.

"I was advised that staff reviewed the boundary and has determined the area in Skamania County can be withdrawn without adversely affecting the performance of the Natural Area Preserve," she wrote. "I am glad, in this instance, we are able to satisfy your concerns."

"They stated their case," Wilson said in an interview. Commissioners "didn't provide public comment at the hearing because they had been told that their concerns would be addressed."

Skamania County Commission Chairman Bob Talent said the county has contributed more than its share of land to public uses. The shrinking of the county's tax base continues, he added, as the Forest Service proceeds with the purchase of scores of parcels from willing sellers.

"We've had over 19,000 acres taken off the tax rolls by the Forest Service," Talent said. "It's affecting our tax base. To pull in another protective designation seemed like a slap in the face to taxpayers."


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