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News / Northwest

WA to acquire 9,700-acre forest near Cle Elum thanks to federal grant

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: May 14, 2024, 7:51am

SEATTLE — As Darcy Batura often wanders Cle Elum Ridge, she cherishes the ponderosa pine bark glowing red in the sunshine, releasing a sweet aroma that permeates the forest. A blanket of lupine and yellow balsamroot flowers colors the hills this time of year.

Batura, of The Nature Conservancy and a 20-year resident of Roslyn, has been among a coalition of local, state and federal officials, nonprofits, tribal members and others working to preserve thousands of acres of forestland in Kittitas County for wildlife, recreation, forest health and water supply.

Now, the state Department of Natural Resources will soon acquire the 9,700-acre forest, with $15.3 million from the federal Inflation Reduction Act, coupled with $5.7 million in matching state funding.

U.S. Forest Service officials announced the funding on their visit to Washington this week, with the state getting more than $30 million in federal money to conserve forests like Cle Elum Ridge, which abuts the Teanaway Community Forest and touches the communities of Cle Elum, Roslyn and Ronald.

The state will manage Cle Elum Ridge under a community-based plan.

“In many ways it’s the heart of Washington,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said of the area in a phone call.

This project, Franz said, is especially important amid a changing climate — reducing sprawl into fire-prone areas, preserving fish and wildlife habitat and further safeguarding the headwaters of the Yakima River basin.

The river basin is increasingly strained to supply a growing population with drinking water, support the area’s roughly $4 billion agricultural economy and keep cool, clean water in the river for fish.

The Forest Service announced a total of $154 million in grant funding for 26 projects to conserve forests in 17 states. That also included $14 million to move nearly 14,000 acres of forestland near the White Salmon River into the conservation status and legally protect them from development. The land is owned by Twin Creeks Timber and managed by Seattle-based Green Diamond.

That project is intended to help sustain three local mills which have 300 jobs combined, while protecting drinking water and recreation opportunities.

Another $1.5 million will go toward a conservation project at Green Mountain in Kitsap County. The project will move 360 acres of forest and salmon habitat adjacent to federal, state and local forests into the conservation status. The land is within a contiguous 70,000-acre forest and builds on three nearby conservation projects including the Tahuya River headwaters.

The federal grants will cover a portion of those projects, with the state also footing some of the costs.

“About half of Washington is forestland and a third of that forestland is private,” said U.S. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Xochitl Torres Small in a phone call. “That speaks to the importance of collaboration when it comes to habitat restoration and healthy forests.”

Those forests provide services like a clean water supply and crucial habitat for culturally important species like steelheads and bull trout, Torres Small said.

The piece of forestland in Cle Elum is just one piece of a much larger community-led landscape protection project.

A decade ago, private investors helped The Nature Conservancy acquire nearly 50,000 acres of forest land in upper Kittitas County from Plum Creek Timber. The land spanned all of the timber company’s holdings from Snoqualmie Pass to Cle Elum along both sides of the Interstate 90 corridor.

The acquisition was focused on pausing the threat of development, so the Nature Conservancy could work with the community and adjacent land managers to develop a protection and conservation vision centering community voices and values, Batura said.

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Batura joined the Nature Conservancy just a couple of years later, where she has focused on developing the vision with the community to protect and conserve the forest.

The forests were incredibly dense, overstocked and unhealthy, fueling the 2017 Jolly Mountain fire which burned about 36,808 acres across all land ownerships, including a small portion of the conservancy’s lands.

Since then, the Conservancy has collaborated with DNR, the Upper Kittitas County fuels crew and other partners to put fire back on the landscape through prescribed burns, commercial thinning and forest mastication to weed out smaller trees that can serve as fuels.

Cle Elum Ridge has served as a “living laboratory” to explore forest health treatments like these. Research found thinning the forest and opening up gaps in the canopy increases the depth and duration of snowpack. The gaps, similar to those found in old growth forests, indicate that lost water can return to a landscape if a more natural structure can be restored.

The protection of Cle Elum Ridge was the culmination of 20 years of collaboration and planning to expand the adjacent Teanaway Community Forest. The Teanaway property became Washington’s first Community Forest, a new model providing for state and community collaboration to conserve forests.

The Nature Conservancy and DNR submitted the proposal for the Cle Elum grant, with letters of support from 25 partners, including the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, nonprofits and U.S. Rep Kim Schrier.

Nearly half of the grants announced Monday will go to conserving forests near disadvantaged communities identified by the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool across the U.S.

Upon the acquisition of Cle Elum Ridge, DNR will most likely classify some areas as Community Forest and some as Trust Lands to allow for timber harvest.