140,000-acre national recreation area would be created on both sides of I-90 near Cle Elum.

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CLE ELUM, Wash. — It’s hard to imagine an issue as controversial as the long-discussed expansion of Bumping Lake, part of a broad proposal to secure a better water future for the Yakima Valley.

But now rivaling Bumping Lake is a proposal — also part of that water plan — to create 140,000 acres of national recreation areas in two locations on either side of Interstate 90 near Cle Elum.

National recreation areas are federal designations that generally promote activities like boating and snowmobiling but can also preserve areas as wilderness with no development.

The idea of adding two such areas in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Upper Kittitas County has prompted more than two dozen conservation groups to voice their opposition. They fear it will lead to more off-road vehicles, more pressure on the land and diminished opportunities for those who want to experience the solitude of nature.

“We don’t want to lose the ability to go out into a quieter place and see nature unaffected by our civilization,” said Karl Forsgaard of Mercer Island, president of the North Cascades Conservation Council and a director of the Alpine Lakes Protection Society. “When you take machines out into the quiet, natural places, you make them unnatural. People see that as a loss.”

Opponents also say the idea hasn’t been studied in an ongoing review for revisions to the forest plan for the Okanogan-Wenatchee.

It is a concern also espoused by the Forest Service, which would be expected to manage the recreation area.

On the other side, a smaller group of conservation organizations favors the proposal as part of a broader land management concept including wild and scenic river designations and the purchase of 70,000 acres of private lands in the Teanaway, Little Naches, and the Yakima River Canyon.

Placing those lands under public ownership is seen as a way to assure health of the river system that serves the Yakima Valley.

Helping Kittitas County

The national recreation areas suggestion is designed to address Kittitas County’s concerns about the loss of private land from the tax rolls and to provide flexibility in managing a variety of recreation offered on public lands.

Kittitas County commissioners are on board with the recreation area concept and the overall land conservation goals. Commissioner Paul Jewell said the designation recognizes how the land is already used.

“It’s a level of guarantee that land will be available and will be managed for that use,” Jewell argued. “The designation has the potential to create more notoriety, more opportunity and benefit to Kittitas County in that it attracts more users. They spend time recreating and supporting jobs in our county.”

Aware of the growing controversy over the national recreation area proposal, backers caution they are working to flesh out the proposal and will seek input as the idea jells.

Michael Garrity of Seattle, representing the group American Rivers, served on the group that devised the overall Yakima River Basin integrated plan and the subcommittee that developed the land conservation plank.

“A key message is we are still early in the process to define the specifics of how that land will be managed,” he said. “There will be an opportunity for everyone to weigh in on that. I’d characterize what has gone on as preliminary recommendations.”

Also supporting the designation are the Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited, the Washington Environmental Council and other groups.

Cynthia Wilkerson of Roslyn, The Wilderness Society’s Washington state program manager, said she anticipates more details will emerge over the next six months.

“Right now we are at a figuring-it-out stage. There is nothing concrete,” she said. “We are talking with folks that have an interest and concern over the issue. We want to do it right.”

140,000 acres at stake

The larger of the two areas in question, both on national forest land, covers 100,000 acres south of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, between Blewett Pass and Interstate 90. The area includes some land recommended for addition to the wilderness. A sliver of the proposed recreation area loops along the north ends of the Keechelus, Kachess and Cle Elum reservoirs.

The smaller area is called the Manastash-Taneum recreation area southwest of Cle Elum and west of the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area. The elongated 41,000-acre area already is a magnet for off-road recreation.

The United States has more than 40 national recreation areas. Authorized solely by acts of Congress, national recreation areas prioritize recreation but also include enhanced protection of wild areas short of a wilderness designation.

Washington state already has three national recreation areas: Lake Roosevelt, near Grand Coulee Dam; the north end of Lake Chelan near Stehekin; and the Mount Baker National Recreation Area, south of Mount Baker in Whatcom County.

Opponents to the new recreation areas also criticize the lack of public involvement before the proposal was released in a final program-matic environmental impact statement on the integrated plan. The plan involves a mix of storage, fish passage, water conservation, aquifer storage, water banking, and the watershed land conservation plan that includes the recreation areas.

The biggest piece of the storage plan is Bumping Lake. Studied but rejected for years, the mountain lake off State Route 410 is religiously defended by those who oppose any expansion. They say Bumping Lake, whose most ardent defender was the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, would lose its unique character.

Meanwhile, a delegation representing the various interests that devised the water plan, including Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita, are in Washington, D.C., this week seeking to build federal agency support. Moving it forward will cost an estimated $5 billion over the next three decades.

Backers say the recreation area proposal is but a nonbinding recommendation to the Forest Service.

The Forest Service also has questions, said Judy Hallisey, district ranger for the Cle Elum Ranger District where much of the land in question is located.

“I recognize the overall value of this large proposal to provide water in the future to meet irrigation needs, the fisheries and the needs of the Yakama Nation. I value that,” she said. “There are still a lot of questions about the whys and whether this type of designation is really going to meet the outcome they think it will provide.”

Continuation of off-road recreation is included in the forest plan revision, likely to emerge early next year in a draft environmental impact statement, she said.

Any legislation before Congress to create national recreation area must include funding for implementation. Wilkerson said whether the funding would come in legislation to create the recreation areas or as part of the larger integrated plan is uncertain. But funding is essential.

“We aren’t looking for unfunded mandates for public land,” Wilkerson said.

Given the federal government’s fiscal problems, Forsgaard is skeptical the Forest Service would receive the money necessary to manage the lands.

What’s more, he argued, it’s difficult to see how enough money could be provided to keep up with the demand created by the magnet that is a national recreation area.

But Wilkerson said a designation is one way to attract people to enjoy what public lands can offer for many uses.

“It’s important to us that we really want to broaden the constituency for conservation. There are a lot of people recreating in these places. A national recreation area basically recognizes that,” she said.