The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) says it is pausing efforts to acquire thousands of acres of TransAlta land in Centralia as part of a controversial effort to transform a former coal mine into a wildlife refuge.
After months of tension, the state agency said this week it would step back to allow Lewis County and landowner TransAlta to work out their differences over considerations such as economic impact and zoning issues.
While conservationists, WDFW and TransAlta say donating the land to the state presents a unique opportunity to recover at-risk species and reconnect habitats, the proposal has sparked staunch opposition from county leaders and Southwest Washington’s U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who argue the land should be reserved for development.
“We heard concerns from the Lewis County commissioners regarding loss of property tax revenue, as well as concerns that neighboring commercial or industrial operations could be negatively impacted if WDFW introduced Endangered Species Act-listed species on the landscape,” regional directors Kessina Lee and Larry Phillips wrote.
This year, Lewis County commissioners called WDFW and TransAlta’s plan “unlawful” since it subverted the county’s comprehensive plan.
“Those questions are outside of WDFW’s scope and are better addressed by TransAlta and Lewis County,” WDFW directors wrote. “Our hope is that the local community and TransAlta can continue conversations and come to some shared understanding, at which point WDFW hopes the county commissioners will contact us directly.”
It’s good news for Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope, who has been vocal about the proposed wildlife refuge, which is located in his district.
“I appreciate the integrity the WDFW has shown by pausing its TransAlta acquisition efforts. This move shows respect for the concerns we’ve raised, and it will allow us to work with TransAlta to create a win-win-win situation that improves our economic vitality,” Swope wrote in an email. “As an Opportunity Zone, this area shows great promise for attracting industrial activity that will create the family-wage jobs critical for our sustained well-being. We intend to further explore what can be done with this site, and we applaud WDFW’s efforts to let us do so.”
Opportunity zones are designated by the government and meant to spur economic development in distressed regions.
Meanwhile, TransAlta is continuing with its reclamation efforts at the Centralia Mine. Already, the land that once hosted open coal mines has been transformed into lakes and young forests.
The multi-national power company has said that the wildlife refuge is the best use of the property, and aligns with TransAlta’s sustainability goals.
TransAlta is under federal requirements to reclaim the former mine, and has looked to the state agency for input on how to transform the land. According to Lee, with WDFW, native species have already started to return to the property.
“If and when” WDFW resumes active discussions to acquire portions of the TransAlta property, Lee said, it would still take years to finalize given the lengthy reclamation timeline.
If the refuge does not come into fruition, Lee said WDFW would look at opportunities elsewhere the same threatened species — the western pond turtle, Oregon spotted frog and streaked horned lark — could be recovered.
But, she added, the species have “very specific habitat requirements,” and “the end result would be slow or limited progress toward recovering these species.”