Group aims to save Amon Basin from development

By Kevin McCullen, Herald staff writerApril 29, 2010 

RICHLAND -- A black-tailed jack rabbit wriggled under clumps of sagebrush and rabbitbrush before nestling against a gnarled stem, its black and gray coloration camouflaging its hiding spot in the Amon Basin.

Listed as a species of concern in Washington, the little rabbit never flinched as Scott Woodward walked past it and up a small hill overlooking the wetlands, riparian areas and shrub-steppe of the roughly 100-acre Amon Creek Natural Preserve in south Richland.

Amon Basin is home to the largest concentration of black-tailed jack rabbits in the Tri-Cities, and is the only urban location that combines the three kinds of habitat.

The Amon area also provides habitat to nearly 150 species of birds at various times of the year, river otters, beavers, badger and coyotes, and 47 plant species, including some sagebrush that's at least a century old.

But Woodward, president of the Tapteal Greenway Association, and others fear that Amon's unique habitat would be ruined if an adjoining 119-acre parcel is sold and transformed into a proposed housing development. The project calls for 438 homes, two roads and a bridge that would cross the heart of the wetlands.

"Without that land, there is no buffer to protect all this," Woodward said, gesturing to the riparian areas and wetlands. "Without the buffer, this whole area would be threatened. And if we lose it, it will be lost forever."

So the Tapteal Greenway Association and Friends of Amon Basin are launching a fundraising effort to get $2 million to buy the acreage and create what Woodward calls a "Central Park" for the Tri-Cities because of its unique natural qualities and proximity to homes and businesses.

The effort begins at 9 a.m. Saturday with a free guided walk and interpretive talks by experts in biology, geology, botany and more. Participants are asked to meet at Claybell Park off Broadmoor Street.

The event is intended to inform participants about the natural wonders of the Amon area and show off the native plant restoration and work on signs, kiosks and benches by volunteers, said Kathy Dechter of Richland, the Friends of Amon liaison to the Tapteal Greenway Association.

Owners of the coveted buffer property are willing to sell to the association, Woodward said. The property owners are John Michel of Kennewick and Tom Solback.

"The landowners have been gracious and very willing to work with us," said Woodward, a Tri-City native. "They'd prefer it remain a conservation park and they have given us time to come up with (the funds). But at the same time, business is business."

Development of the Steptoe Street extension, which will bring traffic to the eastern edge of Amon Basin, has accelerated the preserve-or-develop pressure on the property.

If fundraising is successful, the Tapteal association will be responsible for maintaining the land, which would be owned by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Woodward said.

The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that helps communities and government agencies identify land for protection as parks and open space, is acting as the agent in the project, he said.

Volunteers in the past year have planted cottonwood, sumac and dogwood trees along the creek, while Boy Scout troops have built benches at overlook areas and members of Ducks Unlimited contributed wood duck nesting boxes. Over the years, volunteers also have removed more than 25 tons of trash.

The Ridges to Rivers Open Space Network, a public-private partnership that formed to identify the region's natural assets, has ranked the Amon Basin project as its highest-priority preservation area because of the quality and importance of the habitat, Woodward said.

This week, Woodward took a short walk through the preserve to point out its springtime splendor. Wildflowers are in bloom throughout Amon, from balsamroot to desert parsley.

Red-wing and yellow-winged blackbirds landed on cattails in the wetlands, while mallards and a pair of Canada geese paddled nearby. In the distance, rooster pheasants cackled.

In part of the wetlands -- near where a bridge would be built to lead to the possible housing development -- water bubbled up from springs, one of the reasons the water does not freeze over in winter and provides year-round access to waterfowl, Woodward explained.

Large holes scoured by beaver pock portions of the bank. Nearby, a trail along an old railway bed is used regularly by hikers and people walking their dogs, which must be leashed.

Granite boulders also dot the landscape, washed downstream by the ancient Missoula floods. And there are frequent signs of jack rabbits, a species that would decline if the population were forced out by development and squeezed into the smaller existing preserve, Woodward said.

"There's no question development is good, and so is open space," Dechter said. "But when open space is gone, it's gone."

-- Kevin McCullen: 509-582-1535; kmccullen@tricityherald.com

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