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ELLENSBURG — Kittitas County government supports developing a long-range plan to boost water storage and habitat restoration in the Yakima River Basin yet has concerns about burdening county taxpayers and the possibility of decreasing public access to land for recreation.

County Commissioner Paul Jewell on Wednesday in Yakima told Yakima River basin water interests he wants to further discuss a proposal put forth by envi-

ronmental groups. The plan calls for governmental entities to acquire tens of thousands of acres of privately owned, rural lands in Kittitas County to offset the impact of future basin projects.

The nine environmental groups are proposing the acquisition of more than 71,000 acres, mostly in Kittitas County, in exchange for their full support of a proposed water resources management plan developed in the past 18 months by a wide-ranging group of major water interests in the basin, including state and federal agencies and tribes.

The plan, eventually, will go to Congress and state government for funding.

The purchased land would be preserved in a natural state and also be the site of restoration projects to improve fish habitat and floodplains and boost water quality.

The land

The groups proposing the purchase, according to Jewell, are American Rivers, the National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Cascade Land Conservancy, Conservation Northwest, Trout Unlimited, The Trust for Public Land, the Washington Environmental Council and the Wilderness Society.

The environmental groups’ proposal includes the purchase of nearly 46,500 acres of Upper Teanaway River basin land owned by the American Forest Land Co.

Other lands proposed for purchase are about 15,000 acres in the Yakima River Canyon south of Ellensburg, with the majority of that owned by the Eaton family; about 10,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber Co. land in the headwater areas of Manastash and Taneum creeks in Kittitas County, and the Little Naches River in Yakima County.

Jewell said the proposal was distributed last week to representatives of a working group of the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Program, which reached consensus on the basinwide plan in December.

He met with major representatives of the proposal before the meeting in Yakima to get an understanding about the proposal and research its impacts.

A closer look

“We have clear concerns about how Kittitas County is providing the majority of the mitigation for the basin water plan,” Jewell said after the Yakima meeting on Wednesday. “But we are willing to take a close look at it, discuss it with all parties, and explore its impact and its benefits.”

Jewell stressed the county is committed to being part of crafting a long-term solution to basin water needs “that we all can be comfortable with.”

“The stakes are very high for all of us to work together successfully to assure adequate water supplies for future generations throughout Central Washington,” Jewell said.

The impacts include taking thousands of privately-owned acres off the taxpaying books when they become non-taxpaying public lands.

“We already have a county that is well over 55 percent public lands,” Jewell said, and the proposal would increase that percentage.

The proposal “takes funds out of the local government stream and puts an increased tax burden on those owning the remaining private lands.”

Jewell said other concerns include:

— Proposals by the environmental groups, which include expanding the lands in the county that have a wilderness designation, could have the effect of limiting public access and activities, a major tourism factor in the county.

— Questioning the ability of federal and state agencies to adequately manage and safeguard the added public lands at a time when government budgets are being cut.

Jewell said there are concerns about forest management and the spread of pests and diseases in forests that make them more prone to highly damaging wildfires.

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