Almost as soon as they purchased about 350 acres of timberland in Skamania County in 2012, Ted and Mary Salka made moves to sell most of it off.
The couple found a buyer in the U.S. Forest Service, but the sale became symbolic of the fiscally struggling Skamania County’s frustrations with the federal agency’s overwhelming presence in the county. Soon, county officials and Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler worked hard to stop it.
Now, after nearly three years of wrangling, the sale is close to completion, and it’s paved the way for new future dialogues between the Forest Service and Skamania County around future land sales. But it’s left the landowners feeling forgotten.
The Salkas own a rock-crushing company and wanted some of the land for a small rock quarry that sat on it. In 2013, they bought the timber property from Longview Fibre (which was purchased by Weyerhaeuser Co. during the sale), but the terms required them to buy far more land than they wanted or needed. They planned to sell about 270 acres and keep 81.
The property is tucked into the forested hills of the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area. It’s bisected by the Pacific Crest Trail and contains Gillette Lake, a popular campsite for backpackers. The government has an easement on the property for 10 feet of either side of the trail, but unbeknownst to many hikers, the lake is on the Salkas’ property.
The Salkas say their interest is purely economic. If the trees were old enough to log, they’d harvest them. If the land could be subdivided for housing, they’d break it up. Ted Salka says he looked into both of those things, but the land is too rocky to grow trees efficiently, and getting permits to subdivide it is nearly impossible. Also, they were concerned about the potential liability of trespassers getting injured on their land.
“The original plan was to try to find somebody who’d want to buy it,” he said. “I didn’t want to own all that ground. I was just interested in the quarry.”
The Forest Service wants the land to preserve and enhance the wilderness characteristics of the Pacific Crest Trail. The land also connects to another piece of Forest Service property chosen for aquatic restoration.
The Salkas expected the sale to take a year, but it’s still not finished. In July 2015, the two parties entered into a purchase option agreement.
When the Skamania County commissioners and the Sheriff’s Office learned of the sale, they reacted quickly. They wrote several letters to Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, pleading for their intervention.
“We write to you again to express our extreme frustration concerning ongoing acquisitions of private land by the U.S. Forest Service in Skamania County, Wa,” read one letter from the commissioners in January.
“Any further acquisition of private lands severely limits the capability of this County to provide services to residents and visitors,” it added.
The county struggles to fund basic services because it has very little tax base. About 80 percent of the land in Skamania County is publicly owned, so the county can’t collect any taxes on it. Only about 10 percent of the land is private timberland, which is taxed when cut about every 40 years. That leaves only about three percent of residential and commercial lands that pay yearly property taxes.
The Gillette Lake property is taxed as timber a timber property, so it pays the county only a fraction of the taxes revenue it would if it were under a different classification. The county receives only about $300 in yearly tax revenue from it.
The land sale would bring the county more than $34,000 in one-time tax payment. But even though that lump sum is far more than what the regular tax revenue would bring the county for decades, Skamania County officials don’t want to see more taxable land go to the Forest Service.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” County Commissioner Chris Brong said. “Where do we stop? Where do we put our foot down?”
He said the county is better served by the land staying in private ownership because zoning regulations could change in the future, and the property could be used in a way that generates more tax revenue.
In January, meanwhile, several business owners in the county and Stevenson’s mayor also wrote to Herrera Beutler and other officials pledging their support of the sale and the benefits it would bring to local tourism.
Herrera Beutler responded to the commissioners’ request by trying to put the brakes on the sale, citing the county’s dire financial situation. She wrote language into the 2016 House Appropriations Budget that Pacific Crest Trail acquisitions must be submitted to committees for committee approval prior to proceeding.
The Forest Service agreed to purchase the land with 2015 funds, however, so the sale was still on.
The Salkas met with a representative from Herrera Beutler’s office and explained their situation. Through their real estate agents, they learned Herrera Beutler’s office had proposed an expanded conservation easement to keep the property on the tax roll while still protecting it for hikers.
“It would have released us from liability, but we wouldn’t have gotten any money,” said Mary Salka, adding the county would have continued to receive its small yearly taxes.
With the sale ongoing, the Forest Service and Skamania County entered into a memorandum of understanding on July 12 agreeing to meet at least twice a year to discuss any federal land acquisitions. The county included a list of federal properties it wants to acquire if and when the Forest Service wants to purchase more property along the Pacific Crest Trail or elsewhere.
Brong said the agreement is a good start but expressed frustrations at how long the land exchanges could take.
“In most cases, it’s going to take an act of Congress for the Forest Service to give any land,” he said.
On July 15, Herrera Beutler’s office sent a press release taking credit for the agreement between the county and the Forest Service.
“This is a ground-breaking agreement, and I commend the U.S. Forest Service for responding to my call to work cooperatively with Skamania County to chart a path forward where everyone benefits,” Herrera Beutler said in the press release.
Commissioner Brong spoke highly of her interaction.
In the same news release, Lynn Burditt, manager of the Forest Service Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, said “with her involvement, we were able to come to a successful compromise that will fully acknowledge Skamania County’s land and revenue needs, and also move ahead with improvements to the Pacific Crest Trail.”
Burditt said the Forest Service is waiting on the last steps to get the land title cleared before the sale is complete and she spoke positively about future dialogues with the county.
Herrera Beutler’s news release made no mention of the Salkas, who own the property that started the controversy. In an email, they wrote they feel their interests have been largely ignored.
“It’s actually incredibly frustrating that the congresswoman thinks she deserves a huge pat on the back,” the Salkas wrote. “Because if this process isn’t pushed through in a timely manner (end of September), we may decide not to sell. And then what happens to her win-win for Skamania County and the Pacific Crest Trail enhancement project?”