Couples buy land abutting Steptoe Butte in the Palouse prairie, with plans to turn it over to the state for conservation. The property is home to heirloom apples, deer, elk, moose and other wildlife.

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LEWISTON, Idaho — Surrounded by family and friends, Kent Bassett appeared giddy as he took a break from scouring the slopes of Steptoe Butte for wildflowers and other native vegetation last month.

The resident of Bellevue, and a Pullman native, was participating in the 2018 Steptoe Butte Botany Blitz. The event, organized by botanist Steve Riser, was designed to collect herbarium samples from the 437 acres Bassett and his late wife, Elaine, purchased at auction in 2016.

The couple pursued the property with the idea of preserving the expanse of native Palouse prairie that wraps around three sides of the butte and abuts Washington State Parks land. The couple joined forces with Ray and Joan Folwell, of Pullman, to ultimately submit the winning bid of $638,000.

If their plans come to fruition, the property that is also home to heirloom apples, deer, elk, moose and other wildlife, one day will become public land managed either by Washington State Parks or the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“The Palouse prairie is a magical ecosystem,” Bassett said. “It’s just absolutely beautiful, and there is hardly any of it left.”

The goal of preserving the land from development, while also making it public, will take a step forward Thursday when the Washington DNR holds a public hearing at Colfax.

The agency is taking public comment on its proposal to name the property a “natural area,” a first step toward purchasing the property if funding becomes available. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the Whitman County Library meeting room.

The agency manages the state’s timberland and grasslands for income, but it also has a conservation branch that is designed to protect sites with unique ecological value. The butte fits that description, according to botanist Rich Old of Pullman, who is working to complete a plant inventory on the property.

Because it wraps around three sides of the conical-shaped butte that is a local landmark approximately halfway between Colfax and Spokane, the property has three distinct ecosystems — canyon grasslands, Palouse prairie and forest land, Old said. It’s the prairie that is of most value and also the most unique.

Before Europeans settled in the Palouse region, it was a vast sea of grass and native vegetation with small pockets of forest. Not only was it ecologically diverse, but its soil was also particularly rich and lent itself wonderfully to dryland farming.

Most of the prairie has since been plowed under, and wheat and pulse crops replaced the native plants. Today, there are only a few scarce and scattered remnants remaining. Old said more than 99 percent of the original prairie is gone.

“It’s not only one of the largest remnants remaining, it is some of the best-condition remnants remaining,” he said.

For comparison, Riser said land preserved at Kamiak Butte is only about 150 acres in size and much of that is forest land instead of prairie.

“This is the largest Palouse prairie remnant there is as far as I know,” he said.

If DNR were to acquire the land, it would be managed either as a “natural area preserve” or a “natural resources conservation area.” The first is more restrictive, with a focus on research and education. Access is allowed, but activities like hunting are rare. The second would allow more access and be less restrictive but still have a priority of conserving ecological values.

Both Old and Joan Folwell said additions like hiking trails probably aren’t a good fit for the land because they invite concentrated use that can spiral outward, trample adjacent vegetation and spread invasive weeds.

“We are trying to preserve the prairie, so putting hard trails through the area is not necessarily the best solution,” Folwell said.

Old said most people who visit the butte simply drive to the top for the expansive views. Those who do venture onto its slopes tend to have a light impact.

“People who walk around on the site walk in various and sundry locations, so there is no concentrated damage,” Old said. “There’s hunters up there in fall and a few people who hike around. It’s just scattered, random use which is very low impact.”

Bassett said he would like hunting access to be preserved if possible, but said land preservation is the highest priority.

“To the extent possible, we want everybody to be happy with this outcome. We want botanists to be happy, we want orchardists to be happy, we want hunters to be happy, we want photographers to be happy,” he said. “We have kind of one opportunity here to keep this from being developed and put in position where the public would love it forever.”

Bassett is adamant that he will only sell the property to DNR or Washington State Parks if they can demonstrate they will be able to care for the property and fight invasive weeds. To that end, he wants a provision that will require income from cell towers on the property to be used for weed abatement there.

“Absent such an agreement, I probably wouldn’t sell,” he said. “I would probably hold it myself.”

John Gamon, natural heritage conservation section manager for the natural-resources department at Olympia said such a provision may be difficult for his agency. But Gamon said it’s possible such an arrangement would work with the parks department, and its possible the two agencies each would acquire pieces of the property and manage them in concert.

If his agency is to acquire the property, Gamon said it first would declare it a natural area. For that to happen, it would have to be approved by the agency’s Natural Heritage Advisory Commission and Hilary Franz, the state’s commissioner of public lands.

Once that happens, the department would be able to seek grant funding from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program administered by the state Recreation and Conservation Office to make a purchase. Money available for that program is appropriated by the state Legislature, and the grant program is competitive.

Gamon said the agency is still in the exploratory stage and Thursday’s meeting is a required step in the process.

“No decision has been made. We are going through the process of evaluation it and getting input from various stakeholders and interested parties and see where that leads.”