OKANOGAN In an ongoing debate over a list generated by Okanogan County that identifies “interested landowners” in state land acquisitions or conservation easements, the state has turned up some evidence.
State Department of Fish and Wildlife Regional Director Jim Brown shared a 22-year-old letter with The Chronicle that shows a former local landowner once expressed interest in having his land purchased for a habitat protection project.
Buck Haeberle sent a letter of interest to the then-named Department of Wildlife on March 5, 1991, noting that he was interested in selling land for an Okanogan sharp-tailed grouse project.
“We’re talking thousands of acres here,” Brown said, noting that the parcels listed were in the area of the Haeberle Ranch.
The letter did not bind Haeberle to selling his land, but if the state had made an offer it would have been based on a fair market value appraisal, according to his letter.
In a response dated Oct. 30, 1991, the Department of Wildlife said project funding had been pulled, but the agency would keep Haeberle’s letter of interest on file for future projects.
“I’m not trying to get in a war with anybody, not the Farm Bureau or anyone else,” Brown said.
Brown said he wanted to “answer facts with facts.”
Fish and Wildlife hasn’t approached the ranch’s current owner, Haeberle’s son Rod Haeberle, about including them among potentially interested landowners, said Nicole Kuchenbuch, Rod Haeberle’s daughter.
“The fact that Grandpa submitted a letter in 1991 is irrelevant,” Kuchenbuch said. “He died nearly 14 years ago.”
She said her father is not interested in selling his land or granting a conservation easement to the state.
“They are misrepresenting us in an effort to attain grant funds for their projects,” she said. “We are just one example…. Other people on the list have no prior history with WDFW and are being included anyway.
“We must expect the department to keep clean records. If they are going to cite ‘interested landowners’ in their published work, then they had better be certain that we are willing participants.”
The list was drafted by the Okanogan County Planning Office based on data from the state Recreation and Conservation Office, which lists grant proposals online in its Project Information System and identifies the state’s targeted landowners.
The list includes more than 50,000 acres in Okanogan County, a total market value of more than $135 million.
Ted Murray with the planning office said he searched projects over a 10-year period and gleaned the list of landowners from that. He said much of the information he found was from currently active projects, and pointed to a $3.3 million project to acquire more than 6,000 acres between Conconully and the Canadian border, to preserve riparian, shrub-steppe and dry forest wildlife habitat.
The county drew up a map and the list for its ongoing study of the economic impacts of state land acquisitions.
Fish and Wildlife owns about 80,000 acres, or 2 percent of the estimated 3.4 million acres in Okanogan County. The county’s entire tax base is about $3.95 billion, and an estimated 25 to 28 percent of the county is privately owned.
The state provides payments in lieu of taxes on the land it owns, but the Legislature has cut funding in recent years so the county gets less than half of what it billed the state.