Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation program manager Rance Block said a crew that ventured into the rugged Bald Mountain and Rock Creek area to film a promotional video encountered a hiccup as they set up to shoot on a ridge top recently. A bugling bull elk in one of the valleys below kept interrupting their work.

"It really made that hair stand up on the back of my neck," Block said.

It is that type of wildlife experience that has helped drive the Naches Forest Restoration Project, he said.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the purchase of 7,711 acres of land from the Nature Conservancy in the Bald Mountain and Rock Creek area in southern Kittitas County earlier this month. The project is the second of three phases in a planned 10,000-acre transfer also referred to as The Heart of The Cascades Project.

The department first purchased 2,675 acres from the Nature Conservancy in 2010 and Block said the last phases of the transfer, including the sale of 3,900 acres held by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, should be complete by the end of the year. The project - a collaborative effort between the Nature Conservancy, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Plum Creek Timber and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife - will maintain single party ownership of the land and keep the area open to the public.

The land acquired by Fish and Wildlife includes a series of 1-square-mile parcels mixed in a checkerboard pattern with parcels of U.S. Forest Service land in an area about 25 miles northwest of Yakima. This year's land purchase from the Nature Conservancy cost the Department of Fish and Wildlife about $2.32 million and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation purchase will cost the department about $2.32 million, according to a Fish and Wildlife news release. The Nature Conservancy declined to specify how much the agency paid to purchase the lands from Plum Creek Timber, but the agency is prohibited from profiting from its land sales.

Hunters, hikers, skiers and off-road enthusiasts have used the area in the Naches Forest Restoration Project with little interference over the years.

"Plum Creek prefers to sell to a conservation seller or buyer," Nature Conservancy Eastern Washington Forests Program Manager Reese Lolley said. "They've also been very generous historically in their public access."

Lolley said Plum Creek placed few gates or signs marking ownership boundaries in the area and described series of virtual tent cities that spring up in the area's meadows during elk hunting season.

Block said recreational land users, who could have been driven out of the area had it fallen under private ownership.

Habitat

Block said that the unique mixture of wildlife and the variety of habitat found in the Naches Forest Restoration Project area had been a driving force behind Plum Creek Timber's desire to sell the land to a public entity. He said more than 100 different kinds of birds, including falcons and eagles make their homes in the area's sprawling valleys and jagged ridges. The region serves as an important pathway for elk migrating from calving grounds in the high Cascades to lower-elevation wintertime feeding areas. Spotted owls, bull trout, steelhead and bighorn sheep live in the area, as well.

"It's pretty rare when you have a project where you have everything from sagebrush lizards and rattlesnakes to mountain goats and alpine birds all on the same site," Block said of the area, which ranges from 6,000 to 2,500 feet in elevation and includes drastic changes in precipitation levels.

Block and Lolley also said that transferring the lands to Fish and Wildlife ownership puts them under the umbrella of the Tapash Sustainable Forests Collaborative, which will enable the lands to be managed in concert with the adjoining Forest Service property to help reduce the danger of wildfires and other forest health hazards.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and the Department of Fish and Wildlife all belong to the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative. Though the Nature Conservancy was the main negotiating party with Plum Creek, Lolley said the fact that all of the parties involved in the transfer also belong to the collaborative helped move the project along.

"It's unbelievable," Block said of the project's progress thus far. "In my 18 years of work at the elk foundation, this part was the truest example of a partnership that I've ever seen on a project."

A joint effort

The Tapash Sustainable Forests Collaborative formed in 2010 as a response to what forest managers see as the need to manage forests collectively to help reduce the risk of large-scale fires.

"We needed to start thinking more strategically and across different ownerships on how fire flows in a landscape," said Nature Conservancy Eastern Washington Forests Program Manager Reese Lolley.

Lolley said that damaging "mega-fires" have become more common throughout the western Unites States in recent years as a result of forest management practices that have, in the past, discouraged the use of smaller, naturally occurring fires as a management tool.

The Tapash Collaborative includes the Nature Conservancy, American Forest Resource Council, Conservation Northwest, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Wilderness Society, the U.S. Forest Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Yakama Nations and the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

In addition to reducing the risk from catastrophic wildfires, the collaborative also works together to improve salmon habitat and enhance forest jobs and biodiversity development.

The collaborative will share the estimated $123,000 annual operation and maintenance costs of lands recently purchased by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for the Heart of the Cascades Project in southern Kittitas County.

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