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Prized Cascade forestland about size of Tacoma to be preserved

By Lynn Thompson
Seattle Times
The Nature Conservancy will buy almost 48,000 acres of forestland between Snoqualmie Pass and Cle Elum owned by a timber company. It’s the largest land purchase by the group in Washington state.

A conservation group will buy almost 48,000 acres of forestland along Interstate 90 between Snoqualmie Pass and Cle Elum, Kittitas County, to protect wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation and the headwaters of the Yakima River.

The Nature Conservancy announced Monday in Seattle that it would purchase the land from timber company Plum Creek for about $49 million. The group said the 75 square miles of Cascade Mountains forestland was its largest acquisition ever in Washington state.

The group also announced the purchase of 117,000 acres from Plum Creek in Montana’s Blackfoot River Valley for $85 million.

The Washington purchase will allow a checkerboard of private timberland to be conserved and managed in collaboration with state and federal agencies, communities and Indian tribes, said Melissa Garvey, the Nature Conservancy’s deputy state director.

“What’s really important is the location. This is the backyard wilderness for both Eastern and Western Washington and a critical part of the water supply for Yakima Valley agriculture,” Garvey said.

To put the purchase in perspective, she said it’s a little larger than the city of Tacoma and about twice the size of all the parks combined in King County.

Other conservation leaders said land acquisition was at the top of their wish list.

“It’s huge and it’s wonderful,” said Bill Chapman, founding board member and past president of the Mountains to Sound Greenway. “If you blue-skyed the best thing you could do for conservation in Washington, this is where you’d go.”

Chapman said the land was identified as a priority five years ago by leading state conservation and environmental groups.

Another priority, 50,000 acres along the Teanaway River Valley east of Cle Elum, was purchased last year by the state.

The land purchase, a part of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, will connect state and federal wilderness areas that provide habitat to elk, wolverine, spotted owls and salmon, and are home to Ponderosa pine and Noble fir. It also touches three major lakes, Keechelus, Kachess and Cle Elum, as well as 390 miles of rivers and streams.

Garvey, of the Nature Conservancy, said the condition of the forest varies from logged timberland to dense stands of trees in need of thinning to reduce the risk of fire. “We’re still in the process of understanding the land,” she said.

She said the next step, once the property sale closes in December, is to work with community members and stakeholders to develop a long-term vision.

The land was left in a checkerboard of public and private ownership by land grants to railroads 150 years ago.

A goal of the conservation groups has been to reunite the land and provide collaborative management of its resources, she said.

Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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