One of the largest ranches remaining in the state went on the market Friday. And it just happens to be in our backyard.
McWhorter Ranch is 14,135 acres of contiguous land that includes the southern slope of Rattlesnake Mountain. The other side of the mountain is part of the Hanford Reach National Monument, and public access to it has been the topic of much debate.
The pristine lands of McWhorter Ranch could be the key to public access to at least part of the mountain in the future if the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is the successful bidder on the property.
No asking price is listed for the ranch, and it's a challenging piece of property to value. While some of the land could be cultivated, it's not irrigated and the water source for the property is a natural spring. The yield from prior dryland wheat crops has been meager. Only 3,746 acres of the land are considered tillable, and 1,600 acres are in the Conservation Reserve Program until 2015.
The ranch, which has been in the family since 1903, could be used as rangeland for cattle or sheep. A herd of elk that roams the Hanford nuclear reservation already visits the ranch regularly as part of its territory, with the animals using the ranch's six-foot sagebrush to rub the velvet off their antlers.
Game abounds at the ranch, and its owners estimate there are canyons on the land that haven't seen a human for four decades.
Estimates put the price of the land at about $7 million, and that may make it too pricey to use for livestock. It will be interesting to see who bids on the land and how much it sells for.
The Legislature earmarked $1.8 million for Fish and Wildlife to use in its bid. And there may be another $1 million available with funds targeted for buying shrub-steppe habitat -- which is in ample supply at the ranch -- coming from the KID and the state Department of Ecology to mitigate any environmental harm for providing water to new vineyards on Red Mountain.
Obviously, that total still comes up short of the estimated value. But the state could find eager partners with deep pockets in groups like The Nature Conservancy and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The state would like to use the land as wildlife habitat, with a priority on the endangered ferruginous hawks that frequent the ranch.
The state also envisions public access to the land in ways that are compatible to the wildlife living there, such as hiking, horseback riding, bird watching and hunting.
The state has had its eye on the ranch for some time, with the late R.J. McWhorter even discussing selling the land to the state in order to preserve it.
But, McWhorter, who died in an ATV accident at the age of 86 in 2007, couldn't bear to part with the land. The property was precious to him, and the family lost part of the ranch to the federal government for World War II's Manhattan Project, making him a strong advocate for personal property rights.
After his death, the ranch went to his children, who have decided now is the time to sell.
And though the state has made no secret of its desire for the property, the property owners are entitled to take the best and highest offer, and will be considering all that are presented. Just because it would be a great asset for the public, doesn't mean they should be compelled to sell it to the state. It's theirs to do with as they see fit.
But it would be wonderful to see the land preserved. Our community keeps growing and spreading onto former farm and ranch land. Houses have crept up hillsides and onto ridges. We have long advocated for public access to Rattlesnake in some form, and it's a shame area residents can't enjoy the view.
We're hoping the state can find some partners with like-minded goals for preservation and public access, and make a fair market offer that the McWhorter heirs will find acceptable.