Project will conserve 9,000 acres near Klickitat River

Disparate interests support effort by Vancouver-based trust

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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When a huge swath of forestland along the Klickitat River is formally secured for conservation by next year, it won't just be environmental advocates celebrating.

Protecting some 14 square miles of land — about 9,000 acres — also has the backing of local leaders and federal lawmakers from both parties. Spearheading the effort is the Columbia Land Trust, a nonprofit based in Vancouver.

The remote and wild area of northern Klickitat County is a crucial part of a cherished landscape, said Cherie Kearney, the land trust's forestry initiative director. Seemingly disparate interests all see value in it, she said, if perhaps for different reasons.

"I think that you get this agreed-upon view that we'd sure hate to lose this," Kearney said.

The land won't have to change hands to be protected. A nearly $4 million grant will allow the state Department of Natural Resources to secure the area by purchasing a conservation easement, Kearney said.

The move will extinguish development rights and assures that none of the landscape will be lost to second homes or resorts — a real threat in forestlands across the country, including Washington, according to the land trust. But it also keeps the area in working forestry, allowing timber harvests to continue. The land is privately owned by Hancock Natural Resource Group.

"It doesn't erode that economic resource," Kearney said, noting recreational assets are also preserved. "It keeps the traditional access for hunting and fishing."

Like many of the Columbia Land Trust's efforts, the Klickitat Canyon Working Forest project has been years in the making. The organization wrote a grant proposal in 2012, and learned earlier this year that it had netted $3.975 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, through its Forest Legacy Program.

DNR is just beginning the process of acquiring the easement that will conserve the land. The transaction will likely be complete in 2015, Kearney said.

Among the project's supporters are Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas.

Herrera Beutler was approached about the project by the Columbia Land Trust, which led a tour of the area with her staff, spokesman Casey Bowman said in an email. Klickitat County leaders and community members also let the congresswoman know they supported the effort, he said.

Though Herrera Beutler reportedly cast a vote in 2011 to eliminate the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the congresswoman has supported projects that are backed by the local community, maintain tax revenue and allow continued forest management and recreation — just like the Klickitat Canyon project, Bowman said.

The project adds to a collage of conservation and restoration work led by the Columbia Land Trust along the Klickitat River, a tributary of the Columbia that's also the state's longest undammed river. Among the land trust's other projects in the area is the in-progress removal of an old haul road along part of the river.

The latest conservation project includes about 5.2 miles of riverfront land on the Klickitat, plus 24 miles of tributaries, according to the land trust. It's also adjacent to another 1,500 acres of conservation land owned by DNR.

"Keeping that land in long-term forestry is very compatible with our long-term conservation plans for the area," said Pene Speaks, an assistant division manager with DNR.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; eric.florip@columbian.com; twitter.com/col_enviro.