MALAGA, Wash. — A proposal by Stemilt Growers Inc. to buy or lease two sections of state land to plant new cherry orchards has drawn opposition of residents and groups and a promise from state Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark.
“No decision will be made outside involvement of this group. It’s clear to me many of you care deeply about the basin,” Goldmark told residents and groups concerned about the Stemilt-Squilchuck Basin south of Wenatchee at a meeting at Malaga Fire Hall on Nov. 5.
State Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Phil Anderson, state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, Stemilt Growers President West Mathison and Chelan County commissioners attended.
At a meeting two months earlier, a Goldmark representative apparently indicated Goldmark had decided to lease or sell the land to Stemilt Growers.
That galvanized opposition from participants in the 2007 Stemilt Partnership formed to save the basin from development and protect water, wildlife and enhance recreational access. Agriculture was not a goal. The basin is part of lands used by large numbers of elk.
Goldmark said he has made no decision but listens to proposals to increase earnings from Public Trust lands for the benefit of education and other trust beneficiaries.
Parlette noted the Department of Natural Resources, which Goldmark heads, is part of the Stemilt Partnership, that it’s important for the department to engage the partnership and keep the trust of the people.
“I haven’t had anyone call and support 450 acres of orchard because it doesn’t go along with the partnership plan,” Parlette said.
Parlette and Anderson urged Goldmark to consider alternatives to orchard. Anderson said the two sections, along with two other nearby sections Fish and Wildlife recently purchased from DNR, were to remain untouched in the partnership vision.
In an Oct. 15 letter, county commissioners told Goldmark that transfer of the two remaining sections to Fish and Wildlife is instrumental to completing partnership goals and that orchard development was not considered by the partnership or identified as a land use.
The county has gathered $1.7 million in state funds and contributions from the Wenatchee Sportsmen’s Association and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to buy 4,000 acres in the watershed from Longview Fibre to preserve water, recreation and wildlife.
Mathison said process is important, that Stemilt Growers has attended four public meetings about its plans, has engaged a wildlife biologist and would be good stewards, balancing needs.
The company would buy and transfer water rights from farther north on the Columbia River and pump water from the river some 3,000 feet up in elevation to the site, he said. Affiliated Kyle Mathison Orchards already pumps water up to nearby Section 10 where it grows cherries on land leased from DNR.
“High elevation cherries are some of the last harvested and a good market opportunity,” Mathison said when asked why the land is important to Stemilt. But he also said, “We are not going to plant an orchard outside the collaboration of Stemilt Partnership.”
“West says they’ll be good stewards but they haven’t been of Section 10,” said Gordon Goodwin, a Stemilt Hill orchardist.
“There’s suppose to be no development in canyon bottoms, but they’ve built roads, cleared brush, cut trees and built a loading dock,” Goodwin said.
The activity of people and equipment during the growing season, hazing of birds and hundreds of people to harvest all would be “devastating” to wildlife, said Jerry Gutzwiler, another resident.
His brother and cherry grower, Norm Gutzwiler, said protecting the watershed is vital not only to wildlife but to orchards already in the larger area.
State Public Disclosure Commission records show Kyle Mathison Orchards, Kyle Mathison, Janice Mathison, Stemilt AgServices and Stemilt Growers gave $7,200 to the Goldmark re-election campaign on Sept. 26, 2012.
Asked what bearing that has in his decision, Goldmark said conservationists donated 10 times that amount and that he listens to everybody.