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Group looks to prevent orchard development

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Growers and conservationists are looking for ways to save two sections of state land from orchard development.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — A community forest — like the state Department of Natural Resources pioneered in the Teanaway Valley — may be a way to preserve two sections of DNR land south of Wenatchee from development as cherry orchards.

That was one solution discussed by the Stemilt Partnership Dec. 20 as it grappled with how to stop Stemilt Growers Inc. or affiliated Kyle Mathison Orchards from buying and converting the land into orchards.

DNR bought 50,272 acres of private timber and grazing land in the Teanaway near Cle Elum for $100 million on Oct. 1, saying it will manage it for water, wildlife and recreation preservation with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and community advice.

Other possibilities may be outbidding the Mathisons — the family owns Stemilt Growers — at a public auction or finding alternative orchard sites for DNR to acquire and lease to the Mathisons, partnership members said.

But none of that may work as the Mathisons contributed to DNR-Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark’s campaign and Goldmark “seems very committed to doing something,” said Dave Gimlin, president of the Wenatchee Sportsmen’s Association.

State Public Disclosure Commission records show Kyle Mathison Orchards, Kyle Mathison, Janice Mathison, Stemilt AgServices and Stemilt Growers gave atotal of $7,200 to the Goldmark re-election campaign on Sept. 26, 2012.

Asked, Nov. 5, what bearing that has in his decision, Goldmark said conservationists donated 10 times that amount and that he listens to everybody.

“I’ll just go ahead and say it. I think it’s a done deal,” said Norm Gutzwiler, an area cherry grower, noting a new irrigation pipe has been installed at the mouth of Stemilt Creek.

At $3 per pound and 10 tons per acre, the Mathisons will gross about $24 million annually off the 450 acres, said Gar Racus, another grower.

The Mathisons have asked DNR to sell or lease two sections to them high in Stemilt Basin near a section that Kyle Mathison Orchards already leases. A section is 640 acres. The Mathisons propose to convert 450 acres of the two sections into orchard. Near 3,000 feet in elevation, the site is desirable for late cherries that bring top dollar.

But the Stemilt Partnership opposes such use because agriculture was not envisioned in the 2008 Partnership agreement aimed at protecting the basin for water, wildlife and recreation. Local residents, irrigation districts, hunters, conservation groups, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, DNR and the Mathisons are all members of the partnership.

Matthew Randazzo, a senior assistant to Goldmark, expressed frustration the group seemed unwilling to consider other DNR sections as alternatives for conservation since DNR needs to consider maximizing returns on its lands to fund schools. But Gimlin said the two sections under consideration are key to elk migration.

State Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, reminded Randazzo that DNR is part of the Stemilt Partnership agreement to preserve the land from development.

“DNR is part of the plan. DNR pulls out and you break public trust in government. It’s a big issue. All across the country that is paramount,” Parlette said. If elk are fenced off the 450 acres they will impact other property, she said.

The Legislature appropriated $4.7 million in its 2009-2011 capital budget for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to buy the two sections, and two others, Sections 16, 22, 20 and 28, from the Department of Natural Resources, said Gordon Goodwin, an area grower. DNR sold Sections 20 and 28 to WDFW but kept the other two, he said. Taxpayers have already paid for 16 and 22 to be transfered to WDFW and that should be honored, he said.

DNR had not made firm commitments on Sections 16 and 22, said representatives of WDFW and The Trust for Public Lands.


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