Grant Funds For South Sound Prairies Project Appear Likely as State Legislature Begins Budget Reconciliation


Prospects for a $3 million request by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife for grant funding to help it purchase the Alpacas of America farm southwest of Tenino appear strong as the state legislature continues this week to negotiate a reconciled capital budget for the 2019-2021 biennium.

The House version of the budget allocated $80 million for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, while the Senate proposed $90 million in its draft document. Christine Mahler, executive director of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, a nonprofit which spearheaded the creation of the WWRP in 1989, said she expected the final appropriation to fall somewhere between those two dollar amounts.

Citing analysis by the state Recreation and Conservation Office, Mahler said that based on where the South Sound Prairies project ranked on the list of proposed Critical Habitat Projects submitted to the WWRP, it would receive about $2.6 million in funding if the state legislature went with the House proposal. Meeting in the middle at $85 million would result in full funding of the request.

“That’s one of those projects that’s right on the cusp,” Mahler said. “They have it broken down with an allocation formula and what money goes into what categories. We’d be delighted if we could talk (the legislature) into even a little bit more than the $90 million to see a good handful of additional programs get more or complete funding, but there’s obviously a lot of pressure there right now, so we’re talking with legislators to make sure they realize the importance of the program.”

The goal of the South Sound Prairies project is to purchase a little more than half of the Alpacas of America farm owned by William Barnett. It carries a listed price tag of $15 million, but financial partnerships between the WDFW, city of Tenino, Thurston County and others may be added to the grant funding.

If successful, the state would look to use the property for a variety of applications including recreation, habitat conservation and mitigation for endangered species such as the Mazama Pocket Gopher. 

Thurston County residents and elected officials have long grumbled about how the restrictions placed on land where the gophers reside can stunt economic growth and create hardships for landowners. The county has submitted a proposed habitat conservation plan to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for review, which could lead to federal permits for Thurston County that allow it to streamline the process developers go through when dealing with gophers.

In the interim, the Board of County Commissioners in Thurston County recently approved changes to the review process in place until a formal conservation plan is put into action. Screening of individual properties is currently required, which can create a backlog spanning months, if not years. Landowners must foot the bill for county staff to conduct field visits for development applications that warrant review.

The BOCC for the first time is allowing persons with properties previously found to contain Mazama Pocket Gophers to apply for a new review every five years. Previously, the initial designation would stick with a parcel of land in perpetuity. The addition of exemptions for replacement of wells and utilities is also meant to help take a bit of the burden off landowners, though the prospect of a large-scale mitigation effort through the WDFW could bring widespread relief.

“If it materializes, there could perhaps be a chance to partner with WDFW to use part of the (900 acres) as a mitigation site,”  said Thurston County Manager Ramiro Chavez. “In our letter of support for the grant, we stated there might be a nexus to coordinate with the state to use some of it, but we’ll have to see how much money is available and if there are enough resources to purchase all of that land.”

Chavez added that there is no expected timeframe for the USFWS to provide comments on the county’s HCP application. That process is not likely to have any impact on potential land acquisition by the WDFW.

The WWRC participated in a study published last fall that looked at the impact of WWRP funds on projects that resulted in economic gains for affected communities. 

State funds totaling about $10 million have been used by the WDFW to purchase about 9,000 acres of land within the Grande Ronde Watershed in Southeastern Washington. The study estimates an ecosystem services return of $15.6 million per year.

“Just the ecological impact, along with the potential of bringing in some economic activity through hunting and fishing licenses, that could all have a big impact,” Mahler said. “Wildlife enjoyment is one of the biggest economic drivers in the state as far as outdoor recreation.”