YAKIMA -- An ambitious plan to improve water supplies for farmers and increase fish habitat in the Yakima River Basin has run into controversy about a proposal that critics say would increase motorized traffic on Forest Service land.
A group of 26 conservation organizations are criticizing the plan for proposing that 141,000 acres of Forest Service land in Kittitas County be designated "national recreation areas," which they say would increase motorized traffic.
The recreation-area proposal, which focuses on land in the Teanaway drainage north of Roslyn and southwest of Cle Elum, came out of the blue, said Rick McGuire of North Bend, representing the Alpine Lakes Protection Society.
"We have put a lot of time and effort into developing management plans in the (Okanagon)-Wenatchee National Forest," McGuire said following a meeting Wednesday of the basin group devising the overall plan, known as the Integrated Water Resource Management Plan. "This is a real short-circuiting of the forest planning process."
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Derek Sandison, who heads Ecology's Office of the Columbia River, said the criticism is an attempt to obstruct the overall plan by throwing "things on the wall and see what sticks."
While no one is threatening litigation, the issue could fester and come up at a later date, potentially stalling the bigger water plan for the basin.
That $5 billion plan seeks to add new storage at Wymer and expand Bumping Lake, provide fish passage, improve habitat, conserve more water and take other steps over a 30-year period.
State and federal officials say the environmental critics are jumping the gun because the recreation area concept is only a recommendation to the Forest Service and not an action that can be subjected to environmental review. Such a review would occur later should a specific proposal be advanced.
Designating recreation areas, new wilderness and river protections are part of the overall plan to conserve habitat and watersheds deemed critical to a healthy river system. A consortium of nine conservation groups that's on board with the plan helped draft the habitat and watershed element.
That habitat/watershed protection and enhancement element would set aside 70,000 acres of forest and lower-elevation shrub steppe habitat.
The 26 groups newly critical of the plan are focusing on the national recreation area (NRA) designation -- one that normally applies to protected areas around reservoirs with water-based recreation.
The western edge of the suggested Teanaway drainage recreation area would encompass land at the north end of both lakes Cle Elum and Kachess.