After more than two years of on-again, off-again negotiations with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) about a joint analysis of the local economic impacts of the agency’s land acquisitions, the county commissioners are considering going it alone.
The Okanogan County commissioners say they are frustrated that WDFW has not provided numbers showing how much land they need and why they need it, nor about the effect on wildlife populations for which they preserve habitat.
Drawing on a study of the economic impact of home building in Wenatchee by the National Association of Home Builders and an offer by the Okanogan County Farm Bureau to analyze the impacts of WDFW land acquisitions on agriculture, the county commissioners are confident they can independently calculate the economic impacts on the county, they said at their weekly meeting on Monday (April 22).
County commissioner Ray Campbell said the commissioners should recommend to WDFW that each party conduct its own study. “We came to a standstill on the memorandum of understanding,” said Campbell. “You do yours and we’ll do ours,” he suggested they inform agency directors. The commissioners previously pulled out of talks last April before they resumed this year.
The commissioners decided in February to hold monthly discussions with wildlife agency directors to hammer out the details of the analysis. But their frustration over the agency’s unresponsiveness, including repeated requests for quantifiable data about species, apparently made them reconsider. The commissioners have asked for beginning, current and target species numbers in each wildlife management area.
County commissioner Sheilah Kennedy has said she wants accountability for the land purchases. Among the information the commissioners have requested is a description of measures WDFW is taking to keep land in commercial agriculture and how associated water rights have been put to beneficial use. They also want to see WDFW’s policies regarding public access for hunting, fishing and recreation.
County commissioner Jim DeTro said he believes WDFW directors have not been negotiating in good faith about the scope of work for an economic analysis because they have continued to pursue land deals.
WDFW decided last fall to halt all new land purchases while the talks about the economic analysis were under way, although they continued to work on transactions that were already in process and to pursue conservation easements, according to WDFW regional director Dennis Beich.
The commissioners’ primary question has been, “What’s the end game? How much property, where, to accomplish what you need to accomplish?” said Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston after Monday’s meeting. Huston said WDFW directors have not provided a satisfactory answer.
Beich explained last year that, because most acquisitions are funded by grants, WDFW has to “identify” land that will meet the grantor’s criteria. “So we draw a big circle, saying something in this area would meet the needs of the grant – we’re not trying to buy all that land,” he said. Only after they get the money can they talk to landowners about a potential acquisition. In almost all cases, property owners approach the agency with their interest to sell, and all transactions are with willing sellers, said Beich.
The Farm Bureau, which produced a report in 2011 entitled “Unsustainable Costs and Impacts of Government Acquisitions of Private Land in Okanogan County,” has offered to help the commissioners analyze the impacts of land acquisitions on farming and ranching.
Marc Straub, the executive director of the North Central Home Builders Association, said the model used in the 2010 study, “The Local Impact of Home Building in Wenatchee, WA: Income, Jobs, and Taxes Generated,” could be tailored to Okanogan County for $1,500. The study looks at the effect of construction and the ripple impact of spending by builders and new residents. The commissioners said they would be interested in pursuing a similar analysis for the county.
The commissioners will review the plans for an economic analysis next week and will decide how to proceed with WDFW, they said.