1,400 acres might be saved as elk habitat

COUGAR — The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife wants to acquire 1,400 acres north of Merrill Lake in Cowlitz County that includes massive old-growth fir and cedar, ancient lava flows and Kalama Falls.

“This has all the features of a national park,” said Bill Richardson, Washington-Oregon lands program manager for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The foundation has secured a four-year option to buy the land from owners Merrill Lake LLC to stop additional logging or other development.

Richardson said the option gives the Department of Fish and Wildlife time to apply for grants administered by the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.

The estimated cost of the 1,400 acres is $8 million. The acquisition might need to be done in phases.

The scenic centerpiece of the parcel is 40-foot Kalama Falls near the headwaters of the Kalama River. But there also are 50-foot-deep tree casts and crystal-clear springs in the lava flows.

“If people knew all the stuff in here, they’d be in here like crazy,” Richardson said.

Ray Croswell of Washougal, a RMEF consultant, agreed.

“It really is like a park,” he said.

But the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is interested in protecting and enhancing the 1,400 acres for wildlife.

“This is winter range,” Richardson said. “So it has both migratory and year-round elk. This is also a transition range. They’ll use it in the spring as they’re moving back up the slope. But this is also a prime calving ground. The couple of springs we’ve been working in here we’ve seen lots of elk calving.”

About 40 percent of the 1,400 acres have been logged.

Where many visitors see ugly clearcuts, Richardson sees a future grocery store for elk.

Research has shown the limiting factor for elk populations in the Northwest generally is food. Lands recently logged are open to the sun and can be managed to produce grasses and other foods beneficial to elk.

Cow elk that feed well in summer and fall will produce calves yearly, while others might have a calf only every other year.

Scientists call the time after logging, a fire, volcanic blast or other ground-disturbing event the early seral stage. When sunlight reaches the forest floor, grasses, shrubs and other elk food prosper.

Once the trees return, the canopy eventually closes and the land produces little elk food.

Richardson said the logging north of Merrill Lake provides an opportunity to provide many years of good feed for elk.

“Logging can be a surrogate for fire,” he said. “Everything that grows is really fresh and new with high nutrition and high palatability. They’re on it immediately. It’s amazing how fast they’ll come out and use the clearcuts.”

There are ways to extend the time the former clearcuts are effective food producers via seeding grass, thinning trees and then pruning the stands that eventually establish, he said.

“You need to keep that sunlight hitting the forest floor,” Richardson said. “That’s the key.”

The land also is important because it connects wildlife habitat found on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a state Department of Natural Resources conservation area and lands owned by PacifiCorp.

Bats and rare amphibians have been identified.

“Doing good things for elk does good things for reptiles, amphibians and birds,” Richardson said. “We’re helping all those wildlife.”

Craig Chilton, a partner in Merrill Lake LLC, calls the 40 acres that include Kalama Falls, the springs, old-growth and lava casts “little Yellowstone.”

“That little place is really neat,” Chilton said.

Merrill Lake LLC bought the land from Weyerhaeuser three years ago.

“We logged a bunch of timber and you can’t see it from the lake,” he said.

Chilton said he is a developer as well as a logger.

“When I found out Weyerhaeuser had it for sale, I saw the potential right away,” he said.

The land can be split into 10-acre tracts.

“I’ve had many people call me and want to buy lots on the other side of the lake,” Chilton said.

Jennifer Quan, lands division manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said grant applications have been submitted in three funding categories administered by the state Recreation Conservation Office.

The office evaluates and ranks grant requests. A decision on the grant requests will be made in October.

“Funding is tight, whether for land acquisition or operations and maintenance, so we really have to focus on those properties that provide the greatest benefits for fish and wildlife,” Quan said.

Richardson said he thinks the Merrill Lake parcel fits that criteria.

“You’ve got a diversity of habitats here that is unreal,” he said.

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