It took three years and $97 million, but the largest land purchase in Washington State history to benefit resource and conservation management has just been finalized, and the Yakama Nation was instrumental in its orchestration.
Governor Jay Inslee, plus several state agencies and environmental groups, also worked to turn this land into the state’s first community forest. The seller was timber company American Forest Holdings. Arent Fox LLP helped broker the transfer.
The 51,000-acre deal will protect a significant river and forest ecosystem from future development, said the law firm’s finance officer, Les Jacobowitz, and is a critical part of the larger Yakima River Basin Plan.
“We have had a vested interest in the whole thing with this transfer of land,” said Phil Rigdon, who oversees the Yakama Nation Department of Natural Resources. “It has an immense potential for us doing restoration for spring chinook, coho, steelhead and some other fish species that once had inhabited the area but have dwindled due to past management decisions.”
The deal gives local communities, including tribes, a voice in managing the lands—from water quality to fish and wildlife management to timber harvest, among other aspects of stewardship. The land lies north of the town of Cle Elum and includes the Teanaway River, a very important watershed in the upper Yakima River Basin.
The Teanaway River drains into the Yakima River, which in turn flows into the Columbia. The Yakama Nation has a robust program for restoring salmon, and this acquisition will greatly help those programs. The Yakama Nation was involved in the discussions from the beginning.
“This was once the second largest supplier of salmon into the Columbia River, next to the Snake River, which has an immense area,” said Rigdon. “There were between 800,000 and one million salmon that used to naturally swim up into the Yakima Basin. This had dwindled down to less than 2,000 in the early 1990s. The tribe has taken a proactive step in restoring habitat and getting fish passage. We now see between 15,000 and 20,000 fish coming back into the basin.”
The Teanaway River is a forested area in the headwaters of the Yakima River basin and has a huge upside for producing more fish. Fish passage, fish protection and habitat protection to restore the runs are high priorities for the tribe. The Integrated Basin Plan is about addressing long-term needs for water, including both fish and agriculture.
“We are one of the largest fisheries tribes in the whole country,” said Rigdon.
The land acquisition benefits tribal people even beyond the boon to fisheries. It takes the land from private ownership to public and opens up areas where they can go to practice other treaty rights such as hunting, gathering foods, “and those things important to our community today,” Rigdon said.
The Yakima River Basin and the Yakama Reservation in particular also produce an abundance of fruits and vegetables. The Integrated Plan for the entire basin helps shore up water rights for agriculture, “to make sure that in drought year conditions there is enough water to sustain the type of local agriculture economy while at the same time enhancing and fixing those things that need to be fixed,” Rigdon added.
The acquisition of the additional 51,000 acres is just one aspect of the entire Columbia River Basin project, but it’s certainly an integral portion for the Yakama Nation.
“We’ve been involved throughout the whole process,” Rigdon said. “I represent the tribe as we work through these technical issues in trying to work to a solution which meets all the objects of the tribe as well as agriculture, local communities, and environmental communities.”
Officials at American Forest Holdings, for their part, were pleased to be able to offer the land back for posterity.
“My client wanted to sell the property,” Jacobowitz said. “From start to finish it took three years, and that was a long time to wait. My client was patient because they liked the legacy aspect of this being forever set aside as a community forest.”