With county leaders balking at the idea of a public wildlife refuge at the site of the old Centralia mine, landowner TransAlta and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) made their case this week, arguing that preserving the land’s “incredible mosaic” of habitats would benefit the environment and the community.
Parcels with industrial potential, the entities said, would largely be excluded from the acquisition, and saved for future development.
“I realize it seems like something we and TransAlta have been cooking up for some years, and it feels like a big government land grab,” WDFW Regional Director Kessina Lee told county commissioners during a meeting. “But this is the beginning of the discussion that starts with you, the county, state legislators and the public. And we anticipate many rounds of discussions.”
WDFW announced the proposal last month, opening a month-long public comment period. In coming weeks, the agency will decide if the plan fits into their “Lands 20/20” initiative. So far, several conservationist groups have voiced support, saying the proposed refuge could be a crucial link between the Cascade mountain range and the Olympics.
Conservation Northwest says the area is a “key stepping stone in a landscape-level network of wildlife corridors.” Spokesman Chase Gunnel said human development has fractured previously-connected habitats, resulting in isolated islands of wildlife that restrict natural movement.
The Washington chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said the project would increase opportunity for recreation close to urban areas, and would have long-term benefits for fish and other wildlife.
After last week’s meeting with TransAlta and WDFW, though, Lewis County commissioners swiftly responded to the proposal with even stronger opposition than they voiced earlier.
In a letter to WDFW, Commissioners Sean Swope, Lindsey Pollock and Gary Stamper argued that the proposal is “not merely bad policy — it is unlawful.”
“... State agencies are required to comply with county comprehensive plans and development regulations,” they wrote, noting that the acquisition includes some Industrial Park of TransAlta (IPAT) land. “Lewis County has made its decision about IPAT: it is for industrial development. The Department may not lawfully overturn that decision by acquiring the land for a habitat preserve.”
WDFW maintains that, of the thousands of acres to be converted into a wildlife area, most parcels with any industrial potential will be preserved for future development. One exception, TransAlta project lead Cody Duncan noted, is about 209 acres that lie at the heart of the proposed wildlife refuge, which could end up being part of the refuge due to its position.
“We’re purposefully not including areas that we feel like have industrial development potential,” Duncan said. “We hope to convert and keep jobs around.”
While TransAlta is committed to fully transitioning to clean energy by 2025, their clean energy plans for the Centralia property have so far been stunted. The Tono Solar project, for example — once predicted to come online in late 2020 — has been shelved for now. According to spokeswoman Lori Schmitt, the project’s “overall economic projections remain unfavorable at this time.” That’s partially due to a lack of customer demand.
The rest of the land, according to Duncan, “would take massive investment” to build on anyway, due to open water and sloped hillsides. The alternative to a wildlife refuge, he argued, would be logging, not development.
Swope repeated concerns that reintroducing threatened or endangered species — a potential part of WDFW’s plan — could restrict development not only in parcels retained by TransAlta, but in other areas of the county if those species roam outside the refuge.
“You can’t contain wildlife, but wildlife can contain you,” he said.
Retention mechanisms could be employed, according to WDFW, to prevent those species from moving into land marked for development, although nothing is guaranteed.
The broad goal of reintroducing threatened species, Lee said, is to boost their populations so development restrictions can be lifted.
“So ultimately, we’re looking to ease those kinds of restraints anywhere,” she said. “That is the goal.”
WDFW also tried to quell concerns that the acquisition would torpedo tax revenue coming into the county. Lands Division Manager Cynthia Wilkerson estimated that the agency would pay about $48,000 in annual PILT payments — money paid to local governments in lieu of taxes. Lewis County’s assessor, Dianne Dorey, said that’s still less than TransAlta is paying in taxes to the county.
The commissioners’ letter suggests they were unimpressed by arguments presented this week. That’s also the case with state Rep. Peter Abbarno, who said he was disappointed with how late WDFW and TransAlta notified him of the plan, especially since he lives and works “a stone’s throw away from the property.”
During a pandemic causing major economic fallout, Abbarno said WDFW has the “wrong priorities.”
“I heard a lot about recovery. But it was recovery of species and not recovery for working families,” he said.
The first-term Republican also argued that introducing threatened species — even if they remain in designated wildlife areas — can carry a “stigma” that deters industry from moving in.