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OLYMPIA — The state Fish and Wildlife Commission on Friday approved the purchase of more than 5,000 acres of Kittitas County forest to protect wildlife habitat.

The move is part of a long-term effort by the state and several conservation groups, called the Heart of the Cascades project, to identify the most important pieces of property to purchase and protect as timber companies look to sell off East Cascade land holdings.

The new acquisition will be 5,497 acres along Manastash Creek, south of Cle Elum, a key migration route for the Yakima elk population, according to James Schroeder, who works with the Nature Conservancy and helped broker the deal.

The state will spend $4.6 million to purchase the property.

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Currently owned by Plum Creek Timber, the parcels to be purchased are laid out in a checkerboard pattern with parcels owned by the Forest Service. This is the third round of state purchases from Plum Creek to protect wildlife habitat in the region. Previously, the state bought about 10,000 acres along the Tieton River and another 10,000 acres in the Naches watershed.

“When you look at wildlife migration, this has really stitched this landscape back together,” Schroeder said.

Although the checkerboard ownership remains — a legacy dating to an era when the federal government granted railroads every other section along a rail corridor as an incentive to build — now the whole area is publicly owned. That will allow agencies to coordinate management and restoration efforts.

“As much as we can, we’ll try to work with Forest Service across boundaries to improve forest health on a meaningful scale,” said Mike Livingston, the regional director for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Restoration work, such as thinning and burning to clear out underbrush, can reduce wildfire risk and improve forage for elk and deer, Livingston said.

The Wildlife Department acquired the land not just because of its importance to elk and deer populations, but also to keep the area open for use by people.

“Plum Creek permitted people to use that land as if it were public,” Livingston said.

“By putting this into public ownership, we’ve kept that for future generations.”

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