The confluence of Wolf Creek and the North Fork of the Touchet River in southeastern Washington is now permanently protected by a conservation easement held by Blue Mountain Land Trust.
The easement on 99 acres of riparian habitat and steep basalt upland terrain keeps the land in private ownership and maintains it as a homestead while ensuring protection of waters important for steelhead and chinook spawning and rearing and bull trout migration.
The project in is funded in large part by the state of Washington Salmon Recovery Funding Board with additional partners in the Bonneville Power Administration and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
“This easement represents protection of critical habitat in the heart of salmon, steelhead and bull trout recovery efforts,” said Steve Martin, executive director for the Snake River Salmon Recovery Board, the organization that identifies, evaluates and recommends funding for local projects to the Salmon Recovery Funding Board.
This easement, Martin said, protects habitat from development activities that, once done, are “almost irreversible.”
Martin said the best philosophy for habitat improvement is to “protect the best and restore the rest.” He added that it is less costly to protect habitat before degradation than restoring it after. With a conservation easement the land is protected forever, he said.
The Umatillas, praised by Martin for their partnership on this conservation easement project, agreed that this particular habitat is critical.
“This is beautiful property that includes a mix of functioning floodplain, wetlands, mature riparian forest, and upland habitat,” said Jed Volkman, Walla Walla Basin Habitat Project leader for the Umatilla Tribes. “You can’t beat permanent conservation easements. A hundred years from now fish and wildlife will still benefit from this work.”
The Umatillas have been working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to begin outplanting 100 spring chinook per year in the Touchet River near the project location, according to Gary James, the Fisheries Program manager for the tribes.
The tribes hope to start this year using seed fish from the Umatilla River, similar to the jump start used for the South Fork Walla Walla River and ongoing for nearby Mill Creek.
“This easement should help protect and expand valuable Touchet spring chinook spawning and rearing habitat,” James said. “This is a great example of combining multiple tools to accomplish our goals.”
In addition to the conservation easement, the tribes’ goals include on-site floodplain enhancements and management of easement property; using the hatchery tool to reintroduce spring chinook salmon; and collaboration with the WDFW to monitor physical and biological improvements.
The easement was obtained from landowners Larry and Barbara Fairchild.
“This is our small way of supporting a worthwhile cause and a dedicated group of people,” Larry Fairchild said in a statement on the trust’s website.
This is the second conservation easement secured by Blue Mountain Land Trust in the Dayton area on the Touchet River or tributaries and results in nearly two stream miles protected on both sides.
Together with landowner Bryan Martin, BMLT on Aug. 25 of last year signed a conservation easement that protects important salmon and steelhead habitat on a stretch of the Touchet River southwest of Dayton. The 35-acre easement on both sides of three-quarters of a mile of the river protects against future development, diking and roads in the floodplain. The easement contains an old river meander, dozens of floodplain acres, several low gravel islands, and other wildlife habitat.
As part of the easement the riparian zone 100 feet back from the river will be fenced. Within the fenced area only passive recreation and habitat improvements will be allowed, while the remainder of the easement area will continue to be used for agricultural purposes. Planting of native vegetation within the riparian zone occurred in the fall of 2011.
“I’m very happy to be able to protect this important salmon and steelhead habitat,” Martin said in a BMLT release. “The conservation easement allows me to continue to own and use the land and at the same time protect an important resource for the future.”
Tom Dwonch, BMLT executive director, said he was pleased to see both easements secured.
The Wolf Creek and North Fork Touchet River project, Dwonch said, “benefits the entire community by preserving an important natural resource and at the same time keeps the land in private ownership and on the Columbia County tax rolls.” He said the conservation easement secured last August not only helps salmon and steelhead recovery efforts, but preserves open space along a developing area of the river.
The Blue Mountain Land Trust was established by local citizens as a non-profit organization in 1999. The organization is made up a 13-member volunteer board and four part-time employees. They work with landowners in southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon interested in voluntary conservation easements. This allows an individual to continue to own and use the land, while creating sideboards for its future use.
BMLT works closely with interested landowners to draft the easement and identify what purpose they would like their property preserved for. Each easement is specific to the particular property. It takes into consideration farmland, range and wildlife habitat to decide what to protect and allow, as well as how to prohibit uses for the land.
“The landowner has to really want to place their land in easement,” said Dwonch, adding that patience is necessary in a process that can take up to a year to complete.
There are two ways for landowners to receive monetary compensation for placing easements with the BMLT. The first approach is federal income tax deduction based on the difference of the appraisal leaving the land untouched and the value of the land after selling the development rights. For example, if the difference was $100,000 between appraisals, the landowner could deduct this amount from their federal taxes over 15 years. To obtain tax deductions the conservation easement must meet IRS criteria. The second approach is a cash purchase for the easement. If this is the option a landowner chooses, BMLT would seek grants of incremental value to preserve the farmland and habitat.
Regardless of which approach a landowner chooses, to qualify they must enter into a legal agreement with a charitable organization such as BMLT. Once the easement is complete the organization monitors the easement annually to verify compliance with the provisions outlined in the easement.
Find out more about BMLT at www.bmlt.org.