Correction: The name of a state Department of Natural Resources official was misspelled in the original version of this story. The error has been corrected in this version.
WENATCHEE — Chelan County officials say they they’ve assembled enough money in grants and contributions to buy 4,000 acres of Stemilt Basin lands to preserve for water, recreation and wildlife protection.
The buy, estimated at $2.2 million, could happen within a year.
“We feel pretty confident we’ll be able to come up with the full funding package,” Mike Kaputa, natural resources director for Chelan County, said Wednesday evening at a meeting of the “Stemilt Partnership” a collection of farming, wildlife and conservation interests concerned about Stemilt Basin land use.
The lands, originally owned by Longview Fibre, are now owned by Weyerhauser, Kaputa said.
The county has assembled a package of funding that includes a $1.4 million in state grants, a $300,000 contribution from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and local grant-matching contributions from the Wenatchee Sportsmen’s Association and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
The county, as funding coordinator, would own most of the lands. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife would own a small part of the lands, yet to be determined, but would manage all of them, Kaputa said.
The lands are six to eight miles south of Wenatchee in the vicinity of Stemilt Loop Road. They contain good access for recreation, Kaputa said. They are also near Lilly, Rose, Black and Clear lakes.
The purchase would add to two, 640-acre “sections” of basin land that Fish and Wildlife purchased in June from the state Department of Natural Resources to protect area water resources and critical elk habitat.
The land sections were two of four that the DNR was considering selling to a private developer.
The DNR holds and manages public lands to raise money for a trust fund for public school construction.
The Stemilt Partnership formed to explore other options for the Departments’ lands that would better preserve water resources for farming, project elk habitat and expand recreation.
Their efforts succeeded in the DNR’s agreeing to lease all the four sections to Fish and Wildlife with the idea that Fish and Wildlife would eventually buy them.
Since that early agreement, officials at the meeting Tuesday say that state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark has decided not to sell the remaining two DNR sections originally under lease.
Those sections, have low value as timber lands and would generate more revenue for the school trust fund if leased for farming, DNR representative Todd Welker, told the group.
That announcement surprised many of the group members at Wednesday’s meeting, including state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, who helped get legislative funding to create the Stemilt Partnership.
West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, said his company seeks to install 400 acres of cherry orchard on the two land sections the DNR now seeks to lease.
He said he would work with the partnership and with state biologists to mitigate for the orchards’ impact on the environment, by ensuring wildlife corridors are in place, the orchards are fenced and water is preserved.
His proposal also includes an annual payment of $50,000 toward management of the lands for wildlife and recreation.
Many partnership members Tuesday pointed to the negative impact to wildlife that would be caused by the commercial orchards, but others said they were willing to further study Mathison’s proposal.
Mathison said his company would seek to install the orchards even if the partnership opposes.
Peter Hill, project manager for the Trust for Public Land, said he was “mystified” how the original effort to secure the lands for conservation, now includes talk of farming.
Kaputa said farming entered the discussion about a year ago, when it was unclear if enough funding would be available to buy the Weyehauser lands. Now that the funding is virtually secure, farming may not be necessary, he said.
The group agreed to write a letter to Commissioner Goldmark detailing their vision for Stemilt Basin land use and urging him to reconsider the sale of the two land sections it formerly leased to Fish and Wildlife.