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Brown: Similkameen land battle not over

Land Trust not happy with losing conservation funds

When the state recently pulled $3.1 million from a planned conservation project, the Okanogan Land Trust said it was disappointed.

“Okanogan lost $3.1 million in local investment with local landowners,” Executive Director Garry Schalla said. “This money would have been re-invested in Okanogan. Instead, this money was transferred to a Western Washington project. It was happily accepted there as community investment.”

The proposed Okanogan-Similkameen habitat restoration project, which sought conservation easements on about 1,500 to 2,000 acres, was nixed by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife after the Legislature chose to take no action on it during the last session.

“We didn’t have to, but we made the decision that was probably the best course of action,” North-Central Regional Director Jim Brown said. “The Legislature didn’t decide not to fund it, they just took no action… We never really got any real clear direction from the state Legislature as to what the next steps would be.

“The director felt the best course of action, and I agreed with him, was to essentially send back that grant and let another organization use it for critical habitat. We wanted to make sure if money couldn’t be used in Okanogan County, it could be used elsewhere.”

Funding had been earmarked for the Okanogan-Similkameen project through the state Recreation and Conservation Office.

Director Kaleen Cottingham had been tasked late last year with collecting input to gauge local support for the project, then deliver the report to the Legislature.

Legislators had previously decided Cottingham’s office couldn’t allocate funding until the level of local support was reported.

Landowner Gene Spear of Loomis has opposed the acquisitions since learning of Fish and Wildlife’s plans in a 2012 Chronicle story.Spear, who owns about 9,200 acres of ranch land, and was and remains adamant that he wouldn’t sell anything to the state.

At the time, he said he had never been approached by state officials to discuss the issue.

Other residents from around the county have also indicated their anger with the agency’s property acquisitions over the years, from landowners in the Methow Valley trying to keep wolves away from their livestock to the Haeberle family, who found their property near Conconully on a list of potential landowners last year.

Although family patriarch and land owner Rod Haeberle said he isn’t interested in selling, Brown turned up a letter from former owner Buck Haeberle, who had indicated some interest in March 1991.

The sharp-tailed grouse conservation project was scrapped, but Haeberle’s letter was kept on file and revealed it 22 years later, after the ownership had changed.

Okanogan County commissioners have also unanimously opposed the project in a December meeting.

They expressed concern that easements would tie up land into environmental preservation and restrict its future use, which Schalla has disputed.

“When it is used properly and for the right reasons, it can be a valuable landowner tool,” Schalla said. “The biggest thing I see is a lack of factual information around what conservation easements do.”

Conservation easements are secured through agreements with voluntary landowners, who are able to continue using their property, he said.

The land stays on property tax rolls, unlike fee acquisitions.

But the easements often include provisions that restrict development and surrender other future uses of the property.

“We want to continue to have open dialogue on these issues,” Brown said. “We disagree with their (county commissioners) posture. We still think it’s a valuable tool for environmental protection.”

Overall, Okanogan Land Trust has sought 17 easements on 5,771 acres for various projects. As for current or future projects, Schalla would only say the Land Trust is continuing its work and moving forward.

The county has also protested easements where the Land Trust is planning projects to protect sharp-tailed grouse, such as in Tunk Valley.

Fish and Wildlife has submitted an application with the Recreation and Conservation Office for funding to purchase a 2,200-acre conservation easement there.

According to state documents, the agency wants to protect the rural valley from “development.”

Documents related to the project and released to the media so far do not show the exact location of the proposed easements. Nor do they identify the landowners or the cost to taxpayers.

“We don’t have agreements yet. But, we do have letters of interest from landowners and we’re getting inquiries all the time from those that are interested in a conservation easement,” he said.

Tunk Valley residents, however, say otherwise – most have repeatedly said they don’t want the state managing any more land in the 16-mile-long valley east of Riverside.

As for the Okanogan-Similkameen project, it may not be a lost cause to Fish and Wildlife.

Brown said his agency is looking at resubmitting the project as a restructured grant request that would require only easements, rather than including acquisitions.

County commissioners asked Fish and Wildlife two years ago to place a moratorium on land acquisitions, but have stopped short of officially requesting the same for easements.

About 25-28 percent of land in the county is privately owned, according to the Assessor’s Office. Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy said only about 17 percent of that is buildable land.

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