Conservation Conflict

BOB MOTTRAM; The Tacoma News Tribune

Washington State - 3/26/03 - Call it a clash of cultures. Or of mandates.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is in business to preserve, protect and perpetuate wild animals and fish. The state Department of Natural Resources is there to make money for the state's public schools trust fund.

And therein lies a problem.

The DNR has converted thousands of acres of Eastern Washington's rapidly disappearing shrub-steppe habitat to other, "higher" uses, including irrigated agriculture and urban development, both of which bring in more cash than shrub-steppe. The Department of Fish and Wildlife and others fear that continued conversion will leave the state bereft of an essential ecosystem on which many species of animals and birds depend.

State Fish and Wildlife Director Jeff Koenings brought the problem to light in December, in a report to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. He spoke about such conversions in Benton County, a sprawling jurisdiction that lies west of the Tri-Cities.

"Over 2,000 acres have been developed in Benton County in recent years," Koenings reported, "1,400 acres are proposed for (this) year, and DNR expects to work on another 1,000 to 2,000 acres in the near future."

Fish and Wildlife has "consistently requested" an Environmental Impact Statement on the impacts of this pattern of development, Koenings said, "but DNR won't consider that option."

Milt Johnston, assistant manager for the DNR's Southeast Region, confirms Koenings' assertion.

"We just don't believe (an EIS) is appropriate," he said. "These are small parcels scattered over a large geographical area."

Johnston acknowledged that "a concentration of lands" is scheduled for development in Benton County, but "when I think about an Environmental Impact Statement I think about a major project. And these, in my opinion, do not rise to that level."

His agency has developed about 1,640 acres in Benton County since 1998, Johnston said, and has another 1,535 acres "on the table" for development in the next five or six years.

Shrub-steppe once covered nearly all of the Columbia basin, which is part of an arid "ecoregion" known as the Columbia River Plateau. The ecoregion spans much of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and California, and in Eastern Washington it extends from the eastern slopes of the Cascades to the Palouse; from Douglas County to Oregon.

"Steppe means grasslands, and in our state we have steppe and shrub-steppe," said Don Larsen, wildlife biologist for the Lands Division of Fish and Wildlife. "Shrub-steppe is grassland that has a conspicuous brush layer, normally sagebrush."

For a long time, people considered it wasteland. More recently, they have come to appreciate its importance.

"There's a whole suite of species that evolved in shrub-steppe and depend on it," Larsen said, "sage grouse, sharptail grouse, pygmy rabbit, burrowing owl, jackrabbit and several species of song birds. Some of these are threatened or endangered, or candidates for it."

Washington already has lost about 60 percent of its shrub-steppe to other uses, primarily irrigated agriculture.

"A lot of the 40 percent that's left is not in very good shape," Larsen said. "Through fire removing the sagebrush, through invasive weeds, through overgrazing, much of what remains is not in good condition."

Once fire or plows or bulldozers remove the natural cover, it is not recoverable.

"They're not making any more shrub-steppe," Larsen said. "It's almost equivalent to clearcutting 600-year-old trees."

On the U.S. Department of Energy's Hanford Reservation, north of the Tri-Cities and on the Hanford Reach National Monument, directly across the Columbia River, wildfire consumed about 190,000 acres of shrub-steppe in 2000.

"It has no grouse," Larsen said. "The problem there for sage grouse is it's all burned. The shrub component is gone, so all those species that need shrubs, they can't exist there."

In some Eastern Washington areas that burned as long ago as 1984, the shrub-steppe habitat still has not recovered, Larsen said. Some of it may be gone forever.

"In some places it will (recover), but in a lot of places it won't," he said. "And where it does, you're talking about 30 to 60 years until it's fully functional as habitat."

Species such as sage grouse indicate where healthy shrub-steppe remains, Larsen said, and Washington has only about 1,000 of the birds left, primarily in two small populations. One is in Douglas County - which is outside the Columbia Basin Irrigation District - and the other, smaller, population inhabits the Yakima Firing Range, a rugged Army installation of thousands of acres north of Yakima.

Johnston, of DNR, says his agency has not ignored wildlife values on its property.

"We try to incorporate as many values for fish and wildlife into our leasing or land management activities as we can," he said. "We try to have wildlife corridors, try not to farm fence-row-to-fence-row, try to have buffers and setbacks from riparian areas."

If a parcel is larger than 160 acres, the DNR will analyze environmental impacts under the State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA). Typically, it will develop a site-specific resource management plan.

"We consult with Fish and Wildlife," he said. "We get their input and we try to input those values into our program."

The DNR controls about a million acres of agricultural land in Washington, 892,000 acres of it in the southeastern part of the state. Of the southeast segment, about 751,000 acres are under lease for various endeavors. Johnson said 132,500 acres are used for dry land agriculture, primarily wheat; 36,000 acres for irrigated farming, orchards and vineyards; and about 467,500 acres - which include shrub-steppe - for grazing. He said about 115,000 acres are categorized as "special use and habitat lands," much of which the DNR leases to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The department also maintains shrub-steppe in a "Heritage Program" that was established as part of the state's Natural Areas Act in 1972. One of the objectives of the act was to create a state system of natural-area preserves. Total DNR contribution of shrub-steppe to the system since 1972 has been 300 to 400 acres.

The DNR can make 50 cents to $1 per acre per year on rents for grazing, Johnston said. For irrigated agriculture, the land is worth $80 to $400 per acre.

"If you're talking vineyard or orchard, it's pretty high-value stuff," he said. "So, when we get a water permit, we would try to get those developed. And that's where the conflict is between the DNR's mission and the Department of Fish and Wildlife's mission."

Other kinds of development also factor in.

"If we're talking about property around an interchange, it might be where we could get the zoning changed so we could sell it as a commercial property," he said.

Johnston said he thinks most of the DNR's shrub-steppe conversions are too small to be concerned about.

"They tell me the real value in shrub-steppe is in the large landscapes," he said. "If you've got a parcel 50 acres or smaller, it's not big enough to provide many wildlife benefits."

Larsen, of Fish and Wildlife, is concerned however that Washington's shrub-steppe may be dying a death of 1,000 small cuts.

"DNR does ask us for our opinion when they have a piece of land they are proposing to convert to agriculture," he said. "We were doing these, but we had no good feel for was this the last one or one of 500 or what? So it was hard to assess each little piece independently.

"To really assess what the impact is, we feel we need to know the larger plan."

Bob Mottram: 253-597-8640

(Published 12:30AM, March 26th, 2003)

Map Source: Washington State Department of Natural Resources


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