Cle Elum Ridge

The Stuart Range is seen from Nature Conservancy lands on Cle Elum Ridge. The Checkerboard Partnership is seeking public input to help them map the path forward towards conserving approximately 27,000 acres of Upper County forestland.

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Kittitas County residents will soon have the opportunity of a lifetime, being able to weigh in on their vision regarding vast tracts of forestland that local stakeholders are fighting hard to ensure remain in the public trust.

The Checkerboard Partnership will soon be releasing a survey for residents that will help them plot their direction forward. The partnership was created in 2019 to help gain input from residents regarding 27,000 acres of forestland currently managed by The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy began managing the lands in 2014, which are located in the Taneum, Cle Elum/Roslyn Ridge and Cabin Creek areas.

The Nature Conservancy Central Cascades Community Coordinator Brian Straniti explained that when the organization assumed management of the lands in 2014, it came due to the generosity of a private investor who sought to keep the lands from being developed. When the investor made the decision to help facilitate the purchase, it came with the understanding that The Nature Conservancy would work to seek grant funding in order to permanently transfer the lands to public ownership by 2024. Although that date is not a hard deadline, Straniti said the purpose of the survey is to help shape a vision potential grant funding, which will in turn help to develop an ownership and management structure of the lands.

“I think it’s less than a firm timeline, but what we are looking at right now are grant opportunities to potentially take some money to transfer ownership,” he said. “The timeline is more abrupt due to grant applications that are coming up.”

Despite the efforts to transfer the lands to the public, Straniti said The Nature Conservancy will remain involved in the community and will continue to passionately work towards its mission.

“Thinking about the nexus of these parcels to the communities which are nestled in them and just applying the values the community has about the forest, deriving the economic benefit and being able to do a lot of cross-boundary forest health work to protect the communities from wildfires,” he said. “I think it’s been a really amazing project, and it’s enabled me to work with community members as well as many other Checkerboard Partnership Membership members to protect these lands.”

Members of the Checkerboard Partnership recently had the opportunity to share their individual passions during a Daily Record Editorial Board meeting. Former Kittitas County Commissioner and Cle Elum Mayor Gary Berdnt said the importance of gathering community input is to help place the partnership in a strategic position to apply for and achieve grant funding to help realize the goal of creating a community forest out of the 27,000 acres.

“A community forest would empower local residents to control decisions about the forest management and use, and to derive benefits from both,” he said. “Our vision is that the community forest will be guided by the community, owned and managed on behalf of the community, governed through collaborative and community participation, managed to balance competing needs, be permanently conserved and benefit our community in as many ways as possible.”

To date, Berdnt said the partnership has worked to engage key members of the community, establish a charter, and defined the community as members living in Kittitas County, along with the Yakama Nation.

“We’re at a place now where we think we’ve done enough legwork to do some intensive outreach, including releasing a survey to capture the community’s values, and whether they support establishing a community forest,” he said.

When Berdnt was mayor of Cle Elum, he witnessed the purchase of 7,500 acres of Plum Creek timberland that would eventually become Suncadia Resort. He said the early consensus was that the lands would never sell.

“It sat for a couple of years, and now it’s a five-star resort,” he said. “Essentially, people lost a lot of recreational opportunities that they were used to for generations. What I think I learned is when the opportunity to conserve the forested lands without developing every acre comes, that’s the interest I have in preserving that land.”

Patty O’Hearn, a private landowner in Upper County and officer in the Washington Farm and Forestry Association explained that there are over 2,000 small forest landowners that own 10 acres or more of forestland within Kittitas County. As one of those landowners, she said she has been concerned about preserving the lands contained within the partnership.

“I’ve been watching more and more development,” she said. “We’ve been reaching out to the landowners and the communities that live in the wildland urban interface to better understand how they use these lands.”

Ellensburg City Council Member Nancy Lillquist said that although the lands aren’t in the immediate sphere of Ellensburg residents, she says the protection of those lands still benefit all county residents from a recreational and economic standpoint.

“Our residents use those lands to recreate,” she said. “Maintaining that access is important to them. As residents of the county and as a whole, that protection from fire and buffering those Upper County communities from forest fire is important even fiscally. As a county and as their neighbors, we want to help them protect their communities. I think the potential economic benefits from acquiring those lands is exciting. There is potential for some of those lands to be logged in a sustainable way, and having a forest products industry in this county would be a benefit.”

Kittitas Conservation Trust Outreach Coordinator Melissa Speeg said her organization is very interested in the goals of the project, as they provide recreational access and wildlife corridors.

“From my standpoint, I live in Roslyn and these lands are right in my backyard,” she said. “These lands serve as a buffer to wildfire in our communities. If they aren’t treated and a wildfire happens, that can be connection into our communities. These lands offer so much value and meaning to our communities, as they have a history with them. Even if you’re not accessing them on a daily basis, they are our backdrop and what we see every day. It’s what gives us peace, particularly in the time of COVID. When everything was shut down, that was a place where people could go to be outside while still being safe.”

Landowners and interested residents that want to help progress the mission of the partnership can start with taking the survey, which will be made available in the coming weeks. Straniti said The Nature Conservancy plans to advertise the survey and it’s availability in the Daily Record, and that they are currently developing website for the partnership that will be at www.checkerboardpartnership.com. Once the public begins to engage in the survey, Berdnt said the results will help the partnership to determine whether county residents support the partnership’s mission. He said the survey will also help gauge the level of interest residents will have in participating in the partnership.

“There was this urge early on to go full-bore, but we don’t know how people feel about it,” he said. “That’s what I hope to get from the survey is if people see this as a worthwhile effort.”

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