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DNR drops Stemilt orchard idea

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

A Chelan County, Wash., official says the Washington Department of Natural Resources has dropped plans to develop cherry orchards in Stemilt Basin near Wenatchee. West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, says that's a loss for the state and county.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — The state Department of Natural Resources is dropping the idea of orchard development on two sections of land high in the Stemilt Basin, says the director of Chelan County natural resources.

“The Washington Department of Natural Resources has indicated that Sections 16 and 22 in the Stemilt Basin are no longer being considered for orchard development,” Mike Kaputa, Chelan County natural resources director, wrote in a Feb. 24 e-mail to more than 100 interested parties.

Matthew Randazzo, senior advisor to Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, confirmed DNR has dropped the orchard idea and is pursuing a way to make the School Trust fund whole for transfer of the land from DNR to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. He said a prior payment intended to include those parcels ended up covering only two others.

The county is working with state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, and others to secure those sections, Kaputa wrote. He enclosed a draft letter to Parlette from the Stemilt Partnership supporting transfer of ownership of the sections from DNR to Fish and Wildlife for management aligning with the Partnership’s goals to protect water, wildlife and recreation. The letter notes Sections 16 and 22 are part of four original DNR sections proposed for exchange with a private developer that prompted formation of the Partnership.

The Partnership, a coalition of people and groups interested in preserving the Stemilt Basin, was formed in 2007 to prevent development.

In the last year or more, Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, the largest cherry grower in the nation and the affiliated Kyle Mathison Orchards, proposed buying or leasing the sections from DNR for development of high-elevation late-season cherries.

The Partnership swung into opposition, noting agriculture was not a goal, and that migration of large herds of elk would be affected. Several public meetings were held. Goldmark attended at least one and told Capital Press that environmentalists contributed far more to his campaign when asked about Stemilt Growers and Mathison family contributions.

In one meeting, Gar Racus, an area grower, said at $3 per pound and 10 tons per acre, the Mathisons could gross about $24 million annually off orchards developed on 450 acres. West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers Inc., said high-elevation cherries are among the last harvested and are a good market opportunity.

Mathison issued the following statement, Feb. 26, when asked by Capital Press for comment on Kaputa’s email:

“It is a shame that the DNR is considering not to lease land to a willing tenant when the potential tenant attended eight public meetings, carries a legacy of stewardship, engaged the Stemilt Partnership in a transparent manner, hired a wildlife biologist to properly mitigate the impact of an orchard, offered annual conservation funding for the Stemilt Basin and would have created hundreds of jobs during a time when folks need work.

“Moreover, this decision takes money away from the School Trust and puts more of a burden on the state to fund schools, and the county by reducing land that could generate tax revenue for our county. This could have been a win-win and we were willing to provide further mitigation, yet a few people were not interested in collaborating.”

Randazzo said he understands Mathison’s sentiments.



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