By Christopher Lopaze, WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Land acquisition by state agencies is draining county coffers, particularly in Okanogan County, said Washington Farm Bureau members and Okanogan County officials.

Jon Wyss, the Okanogan County Farm Bureau president, presented the organization’s concerns about the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s new land acquisition project proposal to lawmakers Wednesday.

The organization wants a moratorium on future land acquisition in the state until an economic impact study is done to determine if there is a net benefit to counties affected. Wyss said the farm group opposes using taxpayer funds to increase government ownership of land.

The WDFW and Okanogan County are conducting separate economic impact studies on land acquisitions in the county. The WDFW study is expected to be released by the end of this month. The Okanogan County study is also nearing completion.

Clay Sprague, WDFW land division manager, said he hopes the studies look at all aspects, including the financial impact of the WDFW-owned land bringing hunting, fishing and wildlife-watchers tourism to the state, which is a $4.5 billion dollar industry, according to the agency.

He said the proposal would continue to advance the agency’s responsibility to protect fish and wildlife in the state. In Okanogan County, the agency has proposed to purchase 2,200 acres in Tunk Valley, located in the eastern area of the county, for habitat conservation.

More than 75 percent of the county is already owned by either state, local or tribal government.

The current state plan would also acquire 728 acres of land in the Kettle River Corridor in Ferry County, and 4,100 acres of land in Grand Coulee Ranch in Douglas County, with a possibility to expand the Grand Coulee Ranch project to a total of 20,500 acres.

The WDFW has proposed acquisition of 13 parcels of land in 12 counties in 2015-2017, potentially adding more than 25,000 acres. The agency currently manages close to 1 million acres of land to preserve habitats and provide fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities, according to the agency’s website.

Okanogan County Commissioners have once again raised issues with continued WDFW land acquisition because they said it is hurting their tax rolls, resulting in less revenue for schools, roads and emergency services.

The payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program, or PILT, allows the state to compensate counties for lost taxes they would ordinarily received from a private citizen owning the land instead of the state. The PILT program does not always offer full compensation.

“If any of our private landowners didn’t pay their taxes, their property would be sold at the courthouse steps,” said Sheilah Kennedy, Okanogan County commissioner.  “So why do state agencies get away with only paying a portion of their payment in lieu of taxes?”

During the last two years, Okanogan County has received less than it asked for from the state. In 2013, the county billed WDFW $523,500, and received $151,000.

“That’s a broken promise by the state,” said Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, in an interview.

He said because much of Okanogan County is already owned by the government, you have to be careful with the tax base left to make sure the county is able to fund local services. He’s against state agencies purchasing more land, especially for conservation easements, until the WDFW “takes local concerns seriously.”

“I’m proud of local folks to bring this up,” he said. “It’s their job to educate the legislators.”

Sen. Linda Parlette, R-Wenatchee, is sponsoring Senate Bill 6551 that would transfer the responsibility of payment in lieu of taxes to the State Treasurer’s office, which would make the process consistent with how the Department of Natural Resources handles PILT.

Parlette said when state legislators have faced a tight budget in recent years, they haven’t fully compensated counties, and she wants to fix that. She said this bill would be one step toward solving that problem. The bill was scheduled for a hearing Feb. 10 in the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

Most of the new land acquisitions would be financed through state and federal grants. The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, and the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are two possible grant sources. Phil Anderson, director of WDFW, would need to approve the specific land purchases and grant funding before implementation.

The proposal details are still being reviewed, and open to public comment online. A State Land Acquisition Coordination Forum is scheduled for March 14 in Olympia.