Proposed Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan

A map included in the Watershed Land Conservation Subcommittee Proposal for the Yakima Basin Proposed Integrated Water Resource Management Plan shows the location of a proposed new wilderness areas and two proposed national recreation areas on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Yakima and Kittitas counties. Together the proposed national recreation areas total of 140,000 acres.

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A proposal that recommends creating about 140,000 acres of national recreation area on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Kittitas County as part of a water enhancement project has drawn ire from some conservation groups.

The proposal would create two national recreation areas in Kittitas County. The 100,000-acre Upper Yakima national recreation area would be mostly north and west of Lake Cle Elum, Kachess Lake and Keechelus Lake and would include the area around the headwaters of the Teanaway River.

Meanwhile, the proposed Manastash-Taneum national recreation area would encompass 41,000 acres located south of Cle Elum and north of the Little Naches River.

About 21,000 acres within the proposed Upper Yakima national recreation area would be designated as wilderness area, about 6,000 acres would be designated for backcountry motorized use and about 1,000 acres would be designated for backcountry non-motorized use.

In the Manastash-Taneum national recreation area, 35,000 acres would be available for backcountry motorized use, according to information provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

The recreation area recommendation applies to lands that are already in Forest Service ownership. The overall Yakima Basin integrated water resource management plan also includes the transfer of about 70,000 acres (almost entirely in Kittitas County) from private to public ownership.

The recommendation

The recommendation came Jan. 4 from the Watershed Land Conservation Subcommittee, part of the Yakima Basin Water Enhancement Project Working Group. The working group includes representatives from the Yakama Nation, irrigation districts, environmental groups and various government agencies and is tasked with finding a consensus-based solution to water problems in the Yakima basin.

The working group was formed in 2009 and released a final environmental impact statement on March 2 detailing its plan for a comprehensive approach to water resource and ecosystem restoration in the Yakima basin.

National recreation areas are protected areas often centered on large reservoirs. Congress must establish any national recreation area, and the designation often emphasizes land use geared toward water-based recreation and large numbers of visitors, according to the Forest Service.

The recommendation made by the Land Conservation Subcommittee states that the national recreation area designation would raise the profile of the lands in question and could serve as “a powerful marketing tool” that would attract more visitors and boost the area’s economic activity.

“This designation is flexible enough to provide protection for key habitat functions while preserving the overall theme of recreation use for these lands,” says the Land Conservation Subcommittee’s recommendation.

The recommendation also notes that any potential national recreation area will not include private lands.

Objections

Last week, 29 environmental groups, conservation groups and organizations promoting non-motorized forms of recreation signed two separate letters protesting the recommendation to establish national recreation areas in Upper Kittitas County. Groups opposed to the recommendation ranged from large groups like the Sierra Club, to smaller organizations such as the Wenatchee-based El Sendero backcountry ski and snowshoe club and local groups such as the Friends of the Teanaway.

A 12-page letter signed by 26 organizations cited concerns about the content of the recommendation and the process used to develop it.

The letter listed increased use of the area by off-road vehicles and the potential for increased environmental impacts as the groups’ chief substantive concerns with the recommendation. It said the recommendation was unclear about how the recreation areas would protect wildlife habitat, and, among other issues, it cited potential conflicts between forest visitors participating in non-motorized activities and those participating in motorized activities as a concern.     

According to the letter, a draft EIS for the Yakima Basin integrated management plan released for public comment in November 2011 did not examine the national recreation area recommendations, which were released Jan. 4. The period for public comment on the draft EIS closed Jan. 3. The letter also alleges that many conservation and non-motorized recreation groups were not notified of the national recreation area recommendation.

“If those people participating in the Yakima process had talked to us, they would have found out all of these reasons why (the national recreation area is) a bad idea,” said Karl Forsgaard, a member of the Alpine Lakes Protection Society’s board of directors. The Alpine Lakes Protection Society signed the 12-page letter.

“Because they did not talk to us, they made a big mistake,” he said.

Visitors

U.S. Forest Service public information officer Roland Giller said that a national recreation area designation would probably attract more recreation-minded visitors to the areas.

“That’s why the Forest Service needs to stay involved in this process,” Giller said. The Forest Service served as a cooperating agency during the creation of the integrated water resource plan.

A fact sheet produced by the Forest Service states that the increased use caused by a national recreation area designation could add to recreational impacts on ecosystems and affect wildlife corridors in the recommended areas.

County position

Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell said the county, which has been involved in the creation of the Yakima Basin integrated plan, supports the creation of national recreation areas in Upper Kittitas County.

“This just memorializes the land use that’s already occurring on those properties,” Jewell said.

Jewell said that much of the land recommended for national recreation area status is currently open for use by motorized vehicles. He hopes the areas would boost the number of visitors to the county, creating more economic activity.

“The northern portion of Kittitas County is pretty much a mecca for snowmobilers in Washington state,” Jewell said.

Jewell said the county continues to have concerns with the portion of the plan that would transfer 70,000 acres of land from private to public ownership because of the loss of property tax revenue and the fact that Kittitas County would bear a disproportional share of the tax base hit.

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