Tulalips, Forterra to preserve Wallace River salmon habitat

GOLD BAR — A 1.25-mile stretch of forested land along the Wallace River will now be protected forever as salmon habitat.

The land, covering 121 acres on five parcels, was purchased by the environmental nonprofit Forterra in July for $490,000. Forterra, formerly known as the Cascade Land Conservancy, transferred the property to the Tulalip Tribes in November for future management.

A conservation easement ensures the property will never be developed.

“There’s a stewardship plan that we’ll be working on with the Tulalips” to maintain the tract’s value to the watershed, said Michelle Connor, Forterra’s executive vice president of strategic enterprises.

The property on the north bank of the Wallace River consists of five parcels that are a mix of wetlands and mature second-growth forests. It was last logged several decades ago.

“The trees have grown back nicely and the land is actually in pretty good shape,” said Daryl Williams, the Tulalip Tribes’ natural resources liaison.

The tract is located just west of Gold Bar and close to the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the Wild Sky Wilderness and other protected lands managed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

The land lies across the Wallace River from a state salmon hatchery, and provides habitat for bull trout as well as four types of salmon: chinook, coho, pink and chum. The land is also home to black bear, elk, deer and beaver.

Williams said the land is likely to remain in its present state, as it already provides ideal habitat for fish in the water as well as for land mammals.

“Right now we don’t have any money to do anything with the property,” Williams said. “Perhaps we’ll thin some of the trees to allow some of the others to grow faster.”

The deal came together when Forterra learned the owner of the parcels, a property investment firm called Robinett Holdings, soon would put them up for sale, Connor said.

“When we first learned the property was coming on the market, we contacted the Tulalip Tribes to see if (the land) would be conservationally significant,” Connor said.

That turned out to be the case, she said.

“The property itself has historical oxbows and natural features that in and of themselves are very, very important,” she said.

It also fit in with the Tulalips’ efforts to restore the watersheds associated with the Snohomish, Skykomish and Snoqualmie rivers.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time and effort trying to restore areas on the watershed,” Williams said.

“With new development and redevelopment, we’re losing habitat faster than we’re replacing it,” he said. “We need to do a better job with what we have.”

The deal marks the second large habitat protection project the Tulalips have undertaken. Last year the tribes breached the levees and restored tidal influence to the Qwuloolt Estuary in Marysville. The 315-acre tract took 20 years to convert from farmland to a salt marsh and cost nearly $20 million.

The transfer of the Wallace River tract is also consistent with Forterra’s goals in working with local Native American tribes on preservation, Connor said.

Last year Forterra carried out a similar property transfer with the Makah Tribe involving 240 acres near Lake Ozette on the Olympic Peninsula that is considered critical salmon habitat.

“We see that repatriation of indigenous lands is an important part of our conservation mission,” Connor said.

Snohomish County was the primary provider of funds for the land purchase and transfer, providing $280,000 in Conservation Futures funds toward the purchase, and toward other costs associated with obtaining the conservation easements and transferring the property to the tribes.

County Parks Director Tom Teigen said the Conservation Futures Advisory Board often tries to strike a balance between acquiring land for active recreation, agriculture and habitat preservation, but this particular exchange stood out for its potential benefits to salmon.

“At the end of the day, preserving that property and getting that much acreage as well as the riverfront is significant,” Teigen said.

Forterra also received $250,000 from the state Recreation and Conservation Office toward the property purchase.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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