For small counties, locating new money-making resources can be difficult, leaving some to struggle to fund basic public services. It also requires abundant deposits of patience.
In Skamania County, this is a harsh reality that county officials have worked eight years to address through the procurement of 23.4 acres of federal land.
“We’re looking for about anything (to strengthen our economy),” said Skamania Commissioner Tom Lannen. “This is opening the gate.”
Last week, the rural county received its long-awaited lifeline to a promising revenue stream — an outcome carried to fruition by a bipartisan trio.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, authored the Wind River Administrative Site Conveyance Act, included in the Fiscal Year 2023 Omnibus Appropriations bill, that will transfer ownership of land from the U.S. Forest Service to Skamania County. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., senior member of the Natural Resources Committee, acted to include the legislation in a public lands package within the omnibus.
“This is a nice win for a corner of Southwest Washington that needs more wins, and I’m grateful for the efforts of so many … to serve the Skamania County community in this way,” Herrera Beutler said, nodding to the diligent involvement from county officials.
Its third legislative supporter, incoming congresswoman Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Stevenson, rallied for its success before kicking off her term in Congress.
“As a Skamania County resident, I know firsthand that our county is missing out on much-needed revenue to support our communities, and conveying this land from the federal government to the county will make sure we’re getting the investments we need and deserve,” she said.
With the Wind River Administrative Site Conveyance Act’s passing, Skamania County will own the entire Wind River site — once used by the Forest Service to grow seedlings to replant forests — including all its dilapidated buildings.
By rehabilitating the site’s decaying structures, eventually to rent and lease out, Skamania County will generate funding from its property taxes — ultimately about $600,000 annually. To metropolitan areas, this anticipated return may be meager, but, for small counties, it’s a significant leap forward, said Bob Hamlin, a Skamania commissioner closely involved with the acquisition.
Roughly 80 percent of Skamania County lies within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and another 18 percent is composed of state and private forests that are exempt from property taxes. The county’s community relies on the remaining 1.8 percent of taxable land to fund its public services.
To date, Skamania County has invested $200,000 into repairing the Forest Service’s buildings and committed about $800,000 in further restoration. Lannen envisions the site gaining an interpretive center paired with a fire tower lookout in addition to its rentals.
Lannen said there isn’t a precise timeline of what to expect after the legislation’s triumph, and the benefits could be delayed up to two years, or depending on when the Secretary of Agriculture formally acts on the conveyance request.
The potential wait time doesn’t deter Skamania officials. In the years it took to get to this point, Lannen added, he learned the value of patience in government work. Moving forward, however, he said bipartisan collaboration, as seen in passing the Wind River legislation, will be integral to Skamania County’s success — if not the entirety of the region.
“One of the things that I am troubled by is this lockstep movement on both parties,” Lannen said. “Until we start working together for solutions that favor not just one side… we’re not going to make things better.”