The Columbia Land Trust on Thursday finalized the purchase of 2,330 acres of forestland and riparian habitat near Mount St. Helens, marking the largest single purchase in the organization's 23-year history.
The move also advances a broad conservation effort that aims to secure some 20,000 acres around the Swift Reservoir and Pine Creek, protecting it from development. The trust acquired the land through an agreement with Pope Resources, a timber company based in Poulsbo.
"This whole project is one that supports forestry and also supports conservation," said Columbia Land Trust Executive Director Glenn Lamb. "To me, it's important that this is actually living those values that we espouse to."
The $5.7 million purchase, paid through a federal grant, is the second phase of the larger Mount St. Helens project, and the first of the so-called Pine Creek Conservation Area, southeast of the mountain. Thursday's purchase secures a large parcel on the east side of the creek.
The Vancouver-based land trust has its eye on two additional parcels, including another 3,074 acres on the west side of Pine Creek. That could be finalized as soon as this year or next year, Lamb said, but that's dependent on another grant coming through. The trust has applied to the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, which is funded by the state Legislature.
The final phase would secure 7,828 acres near Swift Reservoir. The land trust had already secured 6,886 acres south of the reservoir in 2010 through a conservation easement.
The effort began several years ago after controversy swirled around high-end developments in the area. Worried the trend would continue unchecked and harm a valuable landscape, advocates pushed for a solution.
The resulting project spawned the notable partnership of a conservation group, a private timber company and a rural government entity in Skamania County, Lamb said. It also included U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, who praised the effort in a released statement.
"My job is to responsibly steward resources and empower communities of Southwest Washington, so I was happy to step in and assist with a project that will protect forestland for future public use," Herrera Beutler said. "It's great when the community can come together around a solution that balances wildlife protection with active forest management and recreational opportunities."
The project aims to balance working forestland -- most of which will remain active -- with the protection of sensitive habitat. The Pine Creek watershed is home to protected species including bull trout and northern spotted owl, according to the land trust.
The agreement doesn't entirely nix development in the area. But future building will be confined to less sensitive areas, according to the land trust.