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