Beardtongue penstemon blooms above the Klickitat River
Columbia Land Trust has a bold vision to conserve 10,000 acres of forestland at Klickitat Canyon.

Nate Ulrich considers himself more of a botany guy. When Columbia Land Trust’s conservation lead for the East Cascades and Columbia Plateau lists wildlife species found in Klickitat Canyon, he starts with rare wildflowers, such as penstemon and desert parsley. Ulrich also describes the canyon, which sits just below the northern border of southern Washington’s Klickitat County, as a wildlife haven—home to black bears, black-tailed deer, elk, sandhill cranes, owls, hawks, and elusive golden eagles.

Anglers love the Wild and Scenic–designated Klickitat River for its legendary steelhead runs, along with its wild and stocked salmon runs. A combination of artesian springs, snowmelt from headwaters in Goat Rocks Wilderness, and glacial melt from Mount Adams supply the undammed river with the clean, cold water critical to fish.

“I always tell people Klickitat Canyon is the most beautiful part of Washington that they’ve never been to,” said Ulrich. “It’s a region characterized by its rugged remoteness and its gorgeous galleries of basalt canyons.”

The canyon’s unique transitional landscape offers a vital wildlife migration corridor, connecting oak-pine woodlands and grasslands to subalpine forests and meadows. Climate resilience data models* suggest the landscape could serve as a refuge for wildlife in the warmer, drier years ahead.

More than Wildlife

The region’s human history is as rich as its ecology. Since time immemorial, the Klickitat River and its surrounding lands have served as the cultural lifeblood for the Yakama people. The canyon was also once part of an 114,000-acre tree farm based out of the town of Klickitat. Today, forestry persists as a cornerstone of the local economy.

While many people consider the canyon remote, our conservationists recognize that development threats often materialize quickly. Klickitat Canyon’s proximity to the rapidly growing Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area and to outdoor recreation destinations in the Columbia River Gorge suggest that now is the time to conserve the watershed that Phil Rigdon, director of Yakama Nation’s Department of Natural Resources, describes as the last of its kind.

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Since first identifying the lower 40 percent** of the Klickitat River as a conservation priority in 2012, Columbia Land Trust has been hard at work, crafting a funding plan and a multiphase strategy to conserve nearly 10,000 acres of forestland at Klickitat Canyon.

The Land Trust collaborated with a private landowner and community stakeholders for four years before completing the plan’s first phase in December 2016: the conservation of 2,400 acres. These lands are now owned by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources under a Community Forest Trust designation, meaning community members will play an advisory role in the land’s management, including forestry.

Looking Ahead

Moving forward, the Land Trust is turning its attention to Phase II of the project: conserving 3,200 acres of forestland southwest of the Phase I lands. Numerous private and public funders have rallied in support of the project, and we’re seeking additional support from individuals to ensure these lands are permanently conserved by the end of 2017.

If all goes according to plan, by 2020 the Land Trust will have conserved the remaining 4,300 acres upriver from Phase I. We aim to acquire the Phase II and Phase III lands outright, and to manage forests for fire resilience and improved wildlife habitat. We’re committed to contracting locally for forest management in order to economically benefit communities within the region.

Klickitat Canyon is an ambitious project that embodies the Land Trust’s evolving approach to conservation. We’re embracing a strategic, large-scale approach to protect swaths of our last, best natural lands through the application of sound science and collaboration with local, state, federal, tribal, nonprofit, and community partners.

Large conservation projects are inherently complex and nuanced, but the process is ultimately rooted in the art of listening. “Flexibility throughout the process is key,” said Ulrich, “but we make sure to keep sight of our overarching goals.”

We’re planning for forever. We do this by finding common ground around desires for thriving rivers, healthy forests, community-responsive land management, and the shared hope that our children will inherit these lands in better shape than we found them.

 

* Columbia Land Trust is working with The Nature Conservancy to incorporate their climate change resilience data into our spatial analyses.

** The upper 60 percent of the river falls within the Yakama Indian Reservation or protected federal lands.