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Land ownership, maintenance a balancing act in Skamania County

Rural community seeks 23.4 acres from U.S. Forest Service

By , Columbian staff writer
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Skamania County Commissioner Bob Hamlin stands in front of derelict buildings as he talks about future development plans.
Skamania County Commissioner Bob Hamlin stands in front of derelict buildings as he talks about future development plans. (Lauren Ellenbecker/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

STEVENSON — Skamania County sits at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge, a prosperous nature reserve teeming with natural richness. Yet a starker reality exists in its rural communities that struggle to fund basic public services.

After the Great Recession, Skamania County officials faced a flood of financial debacles, eventually leading the county to borrow $2.5 million to make payroll for government workers. It didn’t work. Employees were laid off and public safety, schools and other government services were significantly reduced.

“One of the difficult things for small counties is finding new revenue streams,” Skamania Commissioner Tom Lannen said.

About 80 percent of Skamania County sits within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and another 18 percent consists of state and private forests that are exempt from property taxes. This means the rural community relies on its remaining 1.8 percent of taxable land to fund its public services.

It is not enough, and Skamania County’s economy continues to be strained, Lannen said.

Fortunately, officials found hope for economic success in the form of dilapidated buildings once inhabited by U.S. Forest Service employees.

Tapping into worn potential

In the early 20th century, the U.S. Forest Service established three administrative sites within the county to care for the area’s dense forests. Among them, the Wind River Nursery was responsible for growing seedlings to replant forests. The site, located nine miles northwest of Carson, was eventually closed in the 1990s. About 300 seasonal and full-time jobs were lost.

Skamania commissioners recognized the abandoned nursery’s potential to generate funding and were able to obtain 187 acres from the federal agency in 2000. They assumed the cost of maintenance and restoration for the structures that were untouched for years.

“So much of what we’re getting out here is stuff that they don’t want,” Skamania County Commissioner Bob Hamlin said.

The Forest Service still owns 23.4 acres of land that the county wants to obtain, as it holds potential to boost Skamania’s economy.

With enough repair and restoration, decaying buildings within the parcels can be flipped to function as rentals and businesses, reducing the federal agency’s deferred maintenance list in the process, Hamlin said. Revenue generated on-site — projected to be $600,000 annually — would be reinvested to feed development projects, expand the water system and create jobs in the process.

Transferring land ownership would be a win-win situation for the Forest Service and Skamania County, Hamlin said.

Until then, the county can’t tap into hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes generated annually.

Pitching the proposal

Skamania County’s economic qualms can easily be obfuscated by various numbers and statistics, so commissioners created a visual example to convey their hardships to policymakers. During an interview with The Columbian, Lannen reached for the multicolored stick that supported his testimonies before federal officials.

More than three-quarters of the stick is painted red to represent the Forest Service’s land within Skamania. A green chunk, or private timber, and a blue chunk, state-owned timber, fills the rest of the stick — except for a white sliver at the end, an example of the county’s land that can be taxed at full value.

“Clearly, we got the short end of the stick,” Lannen chuckled.

As silly as the punchline may have seemed, it was effective.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, crafted the Wind River Administrative Site Conveyance Act in 2020 to transfer land ownership from the Forest Service to Skamania County. It was unanimously approved in the U.S. House in July but now must pass the Senate before coming to fruition.

“This bill exemplifies a groundbreaking, win-win agreement in a rural county where so often, locals’ needs get completely trampled by the federal government,” Herrera Beutler said in a speech on the House floor.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Hamlin said.

But Skamania officials are concerned their yearslong efforts may be extinguished as the bill sits in the Senate.

“I just don’t know where it’s going to go (without an advocate),” Lannen said, referencing Herrera Beutler’s upcoming exit from her position.

Hamlin is worried that Sen. Maria Cantwell, senior member of the Natural Resources Committee, will hesitate to give the land to the county without compensation — something Skamania County can’t provide.

A spokesperson for Cantwell said she hasn’t taken a stance on the issue yet. Sen. Patty Murray’s team did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

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