OKANOGAN A Bonneville Power Administration biologist got an earful Tuesday from Okanogan County commissioners and several residents about the agency’s land purchases for fish habitat restoration.
Roy Beaty said he sought commissioners’ ideas on how the agency can best gather local input during the upcoming public review of land management plans for those properties, which have generally been given to the Colville Confederated Tribes.
Bonneville purchased hundreds of acres of land in the county since 2009 for the Colville Confederated Tribes as part of the 2008 Columbia Basin Fish Accords. Some parcels are located on reservation land, but the majority are not.
Beaty said the agency is required to provide mitigation for fish killed by Columbia River dams, but the tribe must draft land management plans within 12 months of purchase.
“We can’t go back and change the acquisitions,” he said. “But what I would like to do is specifically… have a dialogue so you know what they’re doing with the property and get some positive feedback for them.”
The commissioners’ overarching request was for more transparency.
They asked for more detail on the restoration projects and what the ultimate goals are, the cost of the land acquisitions and an economic analysis.
“There’s an obligation of the counties there that are involved. And the obligation is to know the long-term effect to all these site-specific purchases,” Commission Chairman Ray Campbell said.
“Many of the people who have worked to implement the Endangered Species Act obviously haven’t read it,” county Planner Perry Huston said. “Because the reality is – let’s hearken back to Gov. Lott’s big pronouncement that extinction is not an option. With all due respect, it is an option. The Endangered Species Act contemplates that if the expense, if the impact of trying to save species is so horrendous, you don’t have to do it.
“Biologically, OK, maybe you’ve accomplished something. Economically, have you really done anything that’s going to benefit anybody but the handful of people who are scope-locked on getting as many fish back in every crevasse of the world that we possibly can?”
While more details on the planned projects themselves were not available, Beaty said the idea is primarily to benefit fish listed on the Endangered Species Act, which in this area is mainly steelhead.
“We are subject to what the federal courts tell us we need to do to implement the federal Columbia River power supply
system by a biological opinion, which includes off-site mitigation, improvements in tributary habitat for the species that are being impacted by our dams downstream,” he said. “Part of that package or portfolio projects with them is the land and water acquisitions in addition to habitat improvement, a big project they have.”
The public review process, which Beaty said will start in about two to three months, will focus on draft plans for 13 properties that total about 562 acres.
One of those properties, known as the Hopkins acclimation site in the north end of the county, is 55 acres and still Bonneville-owned. The rest have been transferred to Colville tribal ownership.
Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy suggested allowing affected local residents to serve on the expert panel that Beaty said comprises industry experts who make sure projects are “biologically beneficial.”
Beaty said he didn’t think the panel would be a good way for people to contribute, but residents could volunteer for other groups such as the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board or the Okanogan Conservation District.
“I guess I have to disagree with how easy you’re making it sound for the people to be able to comment versus the people that are on that advisory panel,” Kennedy said. “The experts, in my mind, are the people this is impacting. And to allow them to be able to go online or submit comments is totally, totally different and probably won’t be listened to as much as how and who you select to be on that expert panel. That concerns me.”
Huston pointed out that in talking to local, multi-generational landowners, the expert panel might find that some streams don’t have enough water, which would necessitate adding in infrastructure that could affect farmers’ ability to get irrigation water and cause further economic impact.
“I’m sorry, but your biological experts don’t give a rat’s ass about that,” he said to Beaty, noting that a 20-day public comment period would not be sufficient for the state or tribe to get the kind of feedback they need.
One of the more vocal residents at the meeting was Rod Haeberle. He and a handful of others from the Johnson Creek area appeared to speak out against a proposed project the tribe was seeking funding for last year.
Haeberle provided a 25-page request the tribe filed with the state Recreation and Conservation Office for funding of land acquisitions for habitat creation on Johnson Creek.
“We highly object to the procedure we see being done here,” Haeberle said, calling the process “un-American.”
“Not one of us have been approached,” he said.
Haeberle noted he and others are paying higher utility rates so the Bonneville can have more money for mitigation projects “so we can buy ourselves out so it can go off the tax rolls.”
“We produce the food for this nation. We are endangered,” he said.
“We’re killing our farmers and ranchers while we’re saving fish,” Kennedy said. “Our dream is to be able to own property, do whatever we want and be able to feed our people.
“Everyone wants to own every bit of water that we have and choke us out of existence.”
Beaty said agencies working on land acquisition can’t take properties without the current landowners’ consent, and added that “several” of the parcels the Bonneville acquired for the tribe will continue to remain in agricultural production.
Bonneville, the tribe and other government agencies, however, have purchased land for more than market value to acquire land and discourage non-governmental agencies from trying to keep it in private ownership.
“I don’t think that we’re ever going to get the desired amount” of recovery, Campbell said. He suggested the government start targeting predators of fish and building ladders over dams so fish can pass through more safely.
Kennedy said Bonneville and the tribe should look into scheduling a public meeting in the commissioners’ hearing room, 123 N. Fifth Ave., or at the Agriplex at 175 Rodeo Trail Road.