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Commissioners question state land purchases

Latest plan revolves around salmon habitat

— Discussing land acquisitions and easements with federal, state and local agencies last week, Okanogan County commissioners kept circling back to the same question: When is enough enough?

Commissioners met Dec. 3 with Okanogan Land Trust, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state Recreation and Conservation Office and the Bonneville Power Administration to discuss projects that would involve conservation easements or outright land purchases, in the case of the Bonneville Power Admin-istration.

In each proposal, com-missioners Ray Campbell and Sheilah Kennedy remained staunchly opposed and accused the agencies of “chipping away” at the county’s property tax rolls.

“We need this to stop right now,” Campbell said.

The Bonneville Power Administration shared a land management plan it has developed with the Colville Confederated Tribes for a project that involves purchasing land for salmon habitat restoration: about 120 acres around Wannacut Creek, about 5 acres near Lower Ninemile Creek, and about 12.5 acres around Aeneas Creek.

County Planner Perry Huston recommended the commissioners send a strongly worded letter to the Bonneville Power Administration because the county was not consulted on the plan.

“With each and every one (acquisition), the impacts grow exponentially greater,” Huston said. “The goal is the land, and salmon is the excuse of the day.”

“We’ve spent billions on spring Chinook salmon,” Campbell said. “Are we ever going to stop spending money on spring Chinook salmon? We’ve got them all over the damn place.”

“The BPA is not ever going to be done with mitigating fish and wildlife,” said Roy Beaty, a biologist with the Bonneville Power Administration. “That’s the cost of doing business.”

Much of the commissioners’ discussions revolved around conservation easements.

Regarding easements meant to protect undeveloped land, Kennedy said, “We’re locking up the land, tying up that land for something that may or may not happen in the future.

“We wouldn’t have Grand Coulee Dam if the government operated then the way it does now.”

“Is it our duty to set that in stone for them (future generations)?” Campbell asked. “My answer is no.”

Recreation and Conservation Office Director Kaleen Cottingham appeared in front of the commissioners to hear their thoughts on Fish and Wildlife’s proposed Okanogan-Similkameen Project, which involves two easement requests between 1,500 and 2,000 acres with willing landowners who have already signed agreements.

Cottingham said the Legislature plans to approve or decline the project contract once she assesses public support. If Cottingham determines there is little or no support for the project, she said, the $3.1 million in grant funding could be funneled into a different project.

“All we’re trying to provide is essentially stepping stones within a larger area travel corridor for less conflict with development or loss of habitat,” Fish and Wildlife Regional Director Jim Brown said.

Kennedy expressed doubt of a threat of development on open lands in Okanogan County.

“Our stats are showing us it’s not happening. The rush is not happening,” she said. “There are no jobs for people to come here.”

She said the county should request a moratorium from the Recreation and Conservation Office on conservation easements, similar to the moratorium on acquisitions the county has with Fish and Wildlife.

“I’m sick and tired of seeing our checkerboard get smaller and smaller,” Campbell said.

Kennedy said the county would make deeper budget cuts before it would raise taxes to mitigate the loss of property tax revenues.

Okanogan County Farm Bureau President Jon Wyss said the property tax is based on open space valuation, and while some easements have increased taxes, some have decreased them.

“As soon as the conservation easement goes through and development rights are transferred, once the development rights have left the property, then the market value rate for the property upon sale, once sold, loses 50 percent off the top,” he said.

Wyss said his organization has been objecting to easements and acquisitions for nearly five years, and the state Farm Bureau has also taken a side by voting unanimously to oppose any acquisitions and easements that are publicly funded.

Commissioners also questioned the impacts of easements on current use of some land, such as cattle raising.

Brown said the easements in the Okanogan-Similkameen Project would essentially preserve the land use as-is.

The same is true of a conservation easement the Land Trust has secured on more than 1,000 acres of ranch land owned by Cynthia and Brian Nelson near Chesaw. The easement preserves the Nelsons’ ability to continue raising their around 720 cattle and calves – or to produce whatever they choose.

Cynthia Nelson said she thinks education is important, to help people understand the importance of public funds to helping ranches like hers continue operations.

Kennedy said that while she wouldn’t tell anyone what they can do with their private land, selling development rights – which is what a conservation easement involves – may limit what businesses can do in the future.

“We’re killing them slowly because we’re not allowing development,” she said. “We only have 17 percent buildable, and in the largest county in Washington state.”

Okanogan Land Trust Executive Director Garry Schalla said his organization does not discourage development.

He said the Land Trust has taken steps to work with the county through its regular quarterly updates. “We’re looking to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Huston had some criticisms of his own, pointing out that easements are often procured with public funds.

“All we are doing is creating open space that is under no danger of development,” he said. “What is the end game? How do we in the future provide the vital services, let alone the other stuff, if the very foundation of our economy is knocked out from under us?”

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