Reconnecting the Checkerboard: Major Funding Announced for Cle Elum Ridge Land Acquisition   

On May 13, monumental news broke on the eastern side of the Mountains to Sound Greenway National Heritage Area – the Washington Department of Natural Resources (WA-DNR) successfully won a $15.3 million federal grant to acquire 9,700 acres of forest above the Upper Kittitas County communities of Cle Elum, Roslyn, and Ronald. 

This grant will help fund the final piece of a century-long effort to stitch together the Central Cascades checkerboard. If you’ve ever looked at an older Greenway map (like the one below), you may have noticed a strangely symmetrical checked pattern through the center: remnants of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. Under the Act, the federal government provided every other square mile of unclaimed western lands to private railroad companies to subsidize the cost of westward expansion. 

Those square-mile parcels changed hands many times over the past 150+ years, both to private citizens and commercial uses like timber or grazing. The Greenway Trust is one of many nonprofit organizations that labored for decades to move these parcels back into public ownership, so that large uninterrupted tracts of land could be managed for environmental benefits. It’s hard to provide habitat, restore a threatened species, or build trails if every other mile belongs to somebody with different priorities! 

An Opportunity 10 Years in the Making    

A major opportunity to patch the last of the checkerboard arose in 2014, when Plum Creek Timber placed 48,000 acres in the Central Cascades up for sale. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) called on conservation-minded private investors, who created the Central Cascades Forest LLC and raised funds to purchase the property. TNC then managed and restored the lands on behalf of the LLC, while searching for permanent public ownership.

In 2018, they reached out to community partners to explore the idea of a community forest model for the 27,000 acres within Kittitas County. The Greenway Trust came to the table with many others, including the Yakama Nation, US Forest Service, WA-DNR, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Kittitas County Commissioners, local city councils, community residents and other conservation and recreation nonprofits. The group researched various models of community management and formed the Checkerboard Partnership (CPPC) to keep the communities informed, raise funds, and determine a long-term ownership solution. 

Checkerboard Partnership Meeting

Seeking Solutions Best Suited for the Community  

The CPPC sought an outcome that would lead to sustainable forest management for local benefits. Along the way, the group realized that not all the scattered Central Cascades Lands could or should become community forest. Some parcels, like the Taneum, were already embedded within National Forest lands, while others, like Cabin Creek, could be managed as trust lands benefiting Kittitas County. That left 9,700 acres on the Cle Elum Ridge, sandwiched between the towns and the popular Teanaway Community Forest. Through surveys and public meetings, the CPPC learned how deeply Kittitas residents valued the ridge, not just for recreation but also for clean water, protection from wildfires, and its connection to enduring family traditions.  

New Funding = New Opportunities 

The CPPC had already raised $3 million in Washington State Recreation and Conservation grants to begin transferring the land to WA-DNR, but a great deal more funding was needed. Enter the Inflation Reduction Act, which injected $700 million over 10 years to permanently conserve state and privately-owned forestlands through the Forest Legacy Program. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell supported DNR’s application, calling Cle Elum Ridge “…the missing link in a chain of protected land at the irreplaceable headwaters of the Yakima River,” and citing the land’s many benefits to wildlife, local economy, and wildfire resiliency.  

View from Cle Elum Ridge, photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.

Celebrating the Huge Announcement 

On May 13, CPPC partners learned that not only would our project receive $15.3 million, but USDA Deputy Secretary Xochitl Torres Smal planned to join Rep. Kim Schrier and Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz in Cle Elum to announce the achievement. 

Mike Stevens, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Washington called the federal grant “a gamechanger for this treasured landscape in Central Washington.” Hilary Franz described the pending addition of state land as “monumental,” but there’s more to do! Some state match funding is still needed, and the day-to-day management of the land won’t be determined until DNR has officially purchased the property from the Central Cascades Forest LLC. The landowners, eventual owners, and Kittitas County are all engaged in a collaborative process to figure out long-term needs and impacts across the property. The CPPC’s mission will now shift from searching for pathways to permanently protect the Central Cascades Forests to supporting DNR in balancing the management with the community’s commonly held values for the land. The Greenway Trust will stay at the table to advocate for resources, assist with storytelling, and integrate the Towns to Teanaway trail system. So while specifics will take a few years to sort out, residents of Upper Kittitas County can rest assured that the Cle Elum Ridge forest will be protected, and accessible, into the future.