Opportunity for new wildlife area in Lewis and Thurston counties

A proposed land donation from TransAlta would provide public access for recreation and benefit fish and wildlife conservation

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is interested in creating a new wildlife area in southwest Washington to benefit wildlife and people. TransAlta, a power company that owns the Centralia Mine property in Thurston and Lewis counties, is considering a 6,500-acre land donation to WDFW.

“The donation of this property to WDFW aligns with TransAlta’s commitment to sustainability,” said Mickey Dreher, President of TransAlta USA. “We believe a long-term wildlife area is the best use of this property and would greatly benefit the community now and into the future.”

If WDFW receives the 6,500-acre land donation from TransAlta, the department would pursue grant funding to acquire an additional 3,100 acres of the Centralia Mine property in the future.

— May 2021 Update —

WDFW sent a letter to county commissioners for Lewis and Thurston counties to clarify that at this time, the department is not actively working to move this acquisition forward. Read the letter.

The department hopes that local communities and TransAlta can continue conversations to come to a shared understanding for the Centralia Mine property. At that point, WDFW welcomes more discussions with the community for a potential wildlife area.

View from TransAlta property — Mount Rainier at sunrise.

Community involvement process

On March 26, 2021 WDFW staff presented this year’s land acquisition projects to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, a panel appointed by the governor to set policy for WDFW.

After hearing a summary of each project and reviewing public comments, the Commission supported the department’s efforts to continue exploring these land acquisition opportunities, including the Centralia Mine Project.

Out of 227 submitted comments related to the Centralia Mine property, 88% were in support of the project. All public comments are available on WDFW’s website.

Next steps for exploring opportunity

As stated in a letter to Lewis and Thurston county commissioners in May 2021, the department will wait to continue public engagement on this opportunity until TransAlta and local communities can come to a shared understanding and vision for the Centralia Mine property.

As with any real estate transaction, acquisition of a property depends on a variety of factors. For more information on how the department makes land acquisition decisions, visit WDFW’s land acquisition webpage.

WDFW expects that if a land donation were to take place, it would take several years given the ongoing community discussions, the time required to design and secure approval on TransAlta’s reclamation plan obligations from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, and the timing associated with TransAlta’s obligations for the reclamation work itself. WDFW assembled a technical team to evaluate the property and help form a revised reclamation plan that will increase habitat benefits.

Elk herd on TransAlta Centralia Mine property.

It would be also be several years before full management responsibility would transition from TransAlta to WDFW because coal mine reclamation involves significant bond funds to ensure full restoration of soil, vegetation, and landscape features, and there is a five-year timeframe of responsibilities post reclamation work before the bonds are released.

Proposed wildlife area concept

With access to forest lands becoming much more limited in recent years, WDFW believes the new wildlife area would benefit public access, recreational opportunities, and the local economy.

The portion of the Centralia mine property that could become a wildlife area covers 9,800 acres of diverse habitats that support a variety of fish and wildlife species, including elk, deer, salmon, amphibians, and waterfowl.

The 6,500-acre land donation from TransAlta would not include any of the power plant footprint or the independently owned Industrial Park at TransAlta (IPAT) lands.

The IPAT governing board expressed a willingness to consider an offer from WDFW on one of their parcels, provided the department can secure funding. If WDFW were to go through the land acquisition process and make an offer, it would ultimately be at IPAT’s discretion as to whether a sale is in the best interest of the community.

The future of lands owned and managed by TransAlta are clearly subject to the private property rights associated with the company and governed by the local, state, and federal regulations that bound those rights. WDFW is in no way looking to subvert those rights and regulations.

Map of Centralia Mine Project.

Managing land to benefit people and wildlife

Public lands such as wildlife areas boost local economies; increase public access to the outdoors; and support a healthy environment, clean water, clean air, and abundant wildlife.

WDFW owns or manages more than a million acres of land and hundreds of water access areas throughout the state and is well suited to manage a new wildlife area in Thurston and Lewis counties long term.

WDFW routinely works with community partners and tribes to plan, fund, and implement land management activities to support habitat enhancement and recreation projects.

While each community is unique, one recent example is the Teanaway Community Forest; after more than 18 months of collaborative work with recreationists and the surrounding communities, WDFW, the Washington Department of Natural Resources, and the Teanaway Community Forest Advisory Committee completed the Teanaway Community Forest Recreation Plan. The Teanaway is now entering into the 15-year implementation phase.

Similarly, the department would have a continued commitment to engage with both statewide and local interests to develop land management goals and objectives. WDFW would form an advisory committee to include local members of the public to craft a vision for the new wildlife area.

Learn more about wildlife area management planning on WDFW’s website or review some recent examples:

· Scatter Creek Wildlife Area Management Plan (2020)
· Sunnyside-Snake River Wildlife Area Management Plan (2020)
· Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area Management Plan (2019)
· Oak Creek Wildlife Area Management Plan (2018)

Economic benefits of outdoor recreation

In Washington State alone, outdoor recreation generates $40.3 billion in total economic activity each year and supports 264,000 jobs or 6% of all jobs in the state. This is on par with the aerospace industry in Washington.

Wildlife areas provide unique benefits to small communities. Thousands of wildlife watchers, anglers, hunters, hikers, mountain bikers, and other outdoor explorers head out for their adventure into wildlife areas from nearby cities and towns or “gateway communities”. They purchase meals, gas, supplies, and lodging, supporting local jobs and boosting tax revenues.

View of Mount Rainier from road on TransAlta Centralia Mine property.

Land use options for the Centralia Mine property

Land management is an important component of a community’s character. The department realizes that Lewis County may be interested in pursuing discussions about land management options other than a WDFW-managed wildlife area for these 9,600-acres of TransAlta’s property.

The department has heard feedback from some Lewis County officials of a desire to keep these TransAlta lands industrial. It is important to note that the proposed TransAlta land donation does not include any of the IPAT properties or the footprint of the power plant. As described above, the department would consider purchasing some of those lands only if the IPAT is a willing seller.

Other potential land use options for the property include maintaining it as industrial property, which would require a viable venture buying into these lands. The current footprint preserves the option for a solar power development in the northwest portion of TransAlta’s property. Another option is to develop a commercial timber operation, which is consistent with the current obligations of the Reclamation Plan that TransAlta currently has in place with the federal Office of Surface Mining. Regardless, decisions about the future use of these lands are up to the property owner (TransAlta) and their regulatory requirements as directed by the Office of Surface Mining.

The table below shows a simple comparison of possible land management options for the TransAlta Centralia mine property as WDFW understands them.

Payment in Lieu of Taxes

The department recognizes that the benefits afforded statewide for public lands can come at a financial cost born by local property taxpayers due to WDFW’s statutory exemption from property taxes. Each year, WDFW provides Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) to counties who opt in on land owned by the department. These PILT payments are designed to compensate counties for the loss of local property taxes on parcels acquired by the department to protect critical habitat for fish and wildlife, and for outdoor recreation.

WDFW is currently working with the PILT Coalition, including the Washington State Association of Counties, to reform the PILT program so that it provides more direct value to counties. Through this program, counties can opt into PILT payments and can choose to be paid based upon the assessed value (at open space rate) or a per acre rate.

Centralia Mine property provides important wildlife habitat

Active mining at the Centralia Mine ended in November 2006. Since then, reclamation efforts have been under way with some areas now reaching or nearing full reclamation. The current habitat supports a variety of fish and wildlife including elk, deer, salmon, warmwater fish, and many others.

Elk herd in a field in the northern section of the TransAlta Centralia Mine property.

Further work on other parts of the property will take several more years and TransAlta is committed to completing reclamation to meet all standards prescribed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, including habitat improvements requested by WDFW.

This is a rare opportunity to manage a landscape that allows room for creation or restoration of high-quality wildlife habitats such as wetlands and grasslands to benefit waterfowl, amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and fish.

Native species have begun returning and the eventual landscape will be as good as or better than it was before mining. It will include a diverse mix of habitats including forests, lakes, ponds, wetlands, and grasslands that will continue to improve with appropriate land management.

Some portions of the property have the potential to provide habitat for threatened or endangered species, including the western pond turtle, Oregon spotted frog, and streaked horned lark. In fact, a specific site on the property is one of the best opportunities in Washington to create suitable conditions for the western pond turtle.

Supporting species recovery with nearby landowners

Implementing robust recovery actions is a path to recover at-risk species and get them removed from state and federal endangered and threatened species lists. Recovery and removal from these lists benefit all landowners by removing the associated regulatory protections.

These recovery actions can also prevent at-risk species from becoming listed as threatened or endangered. This is the state’s preference — WDFW often pushes for state management that will keep species from needing to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The department has heard concerns about reintroduction of these species and what impacts that might have on neighboring landowners. These species have very specific habitat requirements and would only occupy viable habitat. Listed species often require protective measures for their survival, and the department is committed to working with nearby landowners to protect significant habitats and help people avoid regulatory impacts.

For more information on helping at-risk species on private lands, see this guide from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or learn about Safe Harbor Agreements.

Western pond turtle (left); Oregon spotted frog (center); Streaked horned lark (right)

Western pond turtles: Regarding western pond turtles, fences are a secure way to keep them from leaving WDFW-managed lands. In addition to physical structures, incentives and regulatory assurance tools are available for landowners who are voluntarily or inadvertently hosting recovering species. The department has done this kind of work recently with pygmy rabbit, Pacific fisher, and island marble butterfly reintroductions.

Oregon spotted frog: Similarly, the Oregon spotted frog is highly aquatic and spends little time on land, making movement beyond identified recovery sites unlikely. Many agricultural lands are compatible with the frog and willing landowners can choose to improve habitat conditions for them.

Streaked horned lark: The streaked horned lark requires large expanses of open, short statured grasslands which would not occur in this area unless created specifically for this purpose. Some of the few remaining lark populations in Washington occur on airfields which mimic their natural habitat.

Diverse groups of people support a new wildlife area

People who enjoy the outdoors and value conservation — ranging from bird watchers to mountain bikers to hunters — are supportive of a new wildlife area in Lewis and Thurston counties. The department accepted public comments on this potential project in early 2021. Review all submitted letters and public comments on WDFW’s website.

Lewis County and Thurston County residents

“As a local hunter, wildlife enthusiast, and outdoorsman, I am incredibly excited about the possibility for more public land along the I-5 corridor to hunt and recreate on. In addition, the conservation value of protecting this property will only increase as the human population and footprint in this region grows.”

“The population of Thurston county has grown tremendously in the past 5 years and has resulted in Capitol Forest to become a very busy (at times) outdoor get away. Adding land with similar purpose would allow for residents to visit not so congested areas.”

“As a father, hunter and fisherman I see this land as an opportunity to show my children what the land has to offer and how quickly it can rebound to be a bountiful landscape… This land has a forgiving topography that would be extremely well suited for youth and ADA specific elk and deer hunts.”

“My family and myself have hunted, fished, and hiked that land for years… Between the fishing, elk/deer hunting, and pheasant hunting, it’s the most resourceful place we honestly have available around here… It would be in everyone’s best interest that WDFW can acquire that land and keep it open to the public for everyone to enjoy.”

“As a Lewis County resident, I am in favor of the acquisition of this land by the State to protect wildlife and prevent further degradation of the site… We need to protect and preserve the few open areas we have left in the state. Please protect this lovely little valley.”

“I live in Lewis County and worked at the coal mine for 18 years. I think using the reclaimed mine property for a proposed wildlife area is an excellent idea. There needs to be more easily accessible public lands that we all can enjoy.”

“How exciting to have this expansive scarred land considered for habitat restoration, it is direly needed. Not only would it provide wildlife, especially large mammal populations, more land unobstructed by development, and allow wildlife corridor connections in southwest WA, but it would also provide the residents and regional visitors additional places to recreate, explore, and relax.”

“As a resident of SW Washington who is always looking for new area to explore and recreate, I’m excited by this proposal. I appreciate that this location is somewhat close to I-5 and the cities of Chehalis & Centralia. I sincerely WDFW will move forward with the Centralia Coal Mine project. I look forward to having another place to hike and kayak!”

Outdoor recreation and conservation organizations

Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
“This land acquisition would expand access to hunters and anglers in SW Washington, something that is vital as Tacoma, Olympia, and the Vancouver metro areas continue to grow. Getting ahead of the curve and continuing to create new access and opportunities close to urban areas for hunters and anglers will distribute pressure and improve users’ outdoor experience.”

Black Hills Audubon Society
“Local birders have documented on eBird 146 species on one pond. The full property has many special habitat features, particularly the ponds and wetland complexes, and the potential for both riparian and grassland habitat restoration/improvement to benefit waterfowl, amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and fish. WDFW is the best agency to oversee the final mine reclamation to restore fish and wildlife habitat and provide public access.”

Puget Sound Anglers, South Sound Chapter
“The members of the South Sound Chapter Puget Sound Anglers strongly support the proposal to acquire the Centralia Mine property from TransAlta. This is a rare opportunity to gain public ownership of what will be restored natural habitat. It will benefit endangered species, provide recreational opportunities for sportsmen and preclude future degradation of almost 10,000 acres of Lewis and Thurston Counties.”

Woodland Trail Greenway Association
“We view this proposed acquisition as a strategic opportunity for the State to secure critical land and habitat under public ownership. This acquisition would benefit our communities by preserving diverse natural habitat among growing communities in southwest Washington.”

Ducks Unlimited
“We support the efforts by WDFW to acquire the Centralia Coal Mine property currently owned by TransAlta. Located along the Hanaford Valley watershed in Lewis and Thurston counties, this 9,600-acre property offers a significantly unique opportunity to protect and enhance wetlands and watershed health in an area that has been impacted by commercial mining operations since 1971.”

Conservation Northwest
“This proposal presents an opportunity to restore and protect a key corridor for wildlife movement, which could be a key steppingstone in a landscape-level network of wildlife corridors.”

Friends of Grays Harbor
“Friends of Grays Harbor (FOGH) is in support of your acquiring 9,600 acres of the Centralia Mine property owned by TransAlta in Thurston and Lewis counties to provide public access for recreation and benefit fish and wildlife conservation. Reclaiming this open space for wildlife and the public is a very worthwhile acquisition.”

Further questions? Please reach out.

Brian Calkins
Coastal (Region 6) Wildlife Program Manager
360–249–1222

Sandra Jonker
Southwest (Region 5) Wildlife Program Manager
360–931–3248

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.