A longtime dream is closer to reality with the approval of a nearly $800,000 federal grant for the construction of a Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway interpretive center two miles southeast of Ellensburg.

A coalition of 30 conservation groups and public and private agencies now need to raise another $400,000 to $500,000, or 20 percent, to build the estimated $1.2 million center, parking lot and picnic area at Helen McCabe State Park near the mouth of the canyon.

Jill Scheffer of Forterra, who wrote the grant request for the nonprofit Kittitas Environmental Education Network, said she was surprised Thursday by an email from the Federal Highway Administration. 

It indicated a matching grant of $796,174 had been approved to showcase the scenic river canyon at its northern gateway near Ellensburg.

“This was completely out of the blue and was astonishing because it was the largest amount approved among all the other requests around the state,” said Scheffer, a founder of KEEN and senior managing director of the conservation department of the statewide Forterra group.

Longtime dream

An interpretive/visitor center at the 64-acre state park has been a dream of KEEN and Forterra for more than 13 years, Scheffer said. Plans call for an approximate 3,000-square-foot building. 

The 30-member coalition of conservation partners, part of the Yakima River Scenic Byway Initiative formed in 2010, have been working on the project, with Forterra and KEEN taking the lead.

KEEN and Forterra have spearheaded improvements to McCabe Park in past years. Scheffer said now that the federal matching grant has been OK’d, she will renew talks with Kittitas County government officials on possibly having the county take over the park from the state.

She said the concept is the county could own it, but the coalition would be responsible for every other aspect of the park’s operation.  

The plan to build a center was part of the original goals set in 1968 when the Yakima River Scenic Byway became the first official scenic byway in Washington state.

KEEN in late 2009 gained an $8,000 matching grant to plan the center and to form a master plan for improving a variety of aspects in the 27-mile Yakima River Canyon through which state Route 821 winds.

More than 21 miles of the canyon are in Kittitas County.

Those future improvements include recreational access, public safety, protection of sensitive plant, wildlife and geological areas, traffic safety and securing more public lands.

The initiative aims to help manage the public use and long-term conservation of the scenic canyon so generations to come can enjoy it, according to the coalition.

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