Tribes add to Columbia County holdings

A series of land purchases brings the total to 10,000 acres in Columbia County.

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DAYTON -- The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation will own over 10,000 acres of land in southern Columbia County when a recent series of purchases is complete, Columbia County commissioners learned.

Commissioners met with representatives of Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., Thursday to discuss the impact of these acquisitions on the tax base in the county.

The Tribes have owned land in the county since they bought the 8,700-acre Rainwater Ranch in 1998 for $3.9 million through an agreement with the Bonneville Power Administration.

BPA funded the purchase, along with others, as part of an ongoing fish and wildlife mitigation and recovery effort for the Columbia Plateau to mitigate the impacts of hydropower dams by improving fish and wildlife habitat, acquiring land for habitat protection and conducting research.

After the purchase, the Tribes asked the land designation to be entirely forestland for tax purposes, which reduced annual taxes from $26,000 to about $12,000.

In 2004, the state Legislature enacted a law granting property tax exemption for land used for "essential governmental purposes" including wildlife habitat. The Tribes received the exemption in 2005. It was retroactive to the previous year, leaving the county with a $12,000 shortfall in its 2005 budget.

County Assessor Chris Miller told commissioners the county has lost over $60,000 in tax revenue in the past six years due to the exemption.

Commissioners expressed frustration with the loss of revenue, and pending loss of additional revenue from the additional land acquisitions.

Commissioner Dick Jones said he understood at the time of the Rainwater purchase that the Tribes would pay taxes for at least 30 years.

"Somebody's not holding up their end of the bargain here," Jones said.

Commissioners were unanimous in expressing a desire for the Tribes or the BPA to pay the county a payment in lieu of taxes to compensate for loss of the revenue.

Commissioner Dwight Robanske said commissioners weren't informed of the planned purchases when a public notice went out in December.

"It's really irritating when we go to a meeting and they've already purchased 1,500 acres without even telling us," Robanske said.

"We really think there should be mitigation to us," he said.

William Maslen, manager for fish and wildlife for BPA, said in most areas requirements for wildlife mitigation have been met, but mitigation for loss of fish habitat will continue for some time.

"If this is going to go on continuously part of the responsibility of the BPA is to address the impact on communities," Commissioner Dick Jones said.

"I would like to see some mitigation for the local communities. It significantly impacts us when we lose our tax revenue," Jones said.

At the end of the meeting Maslen said he would locate the memorandum of understanding for the Rainwater purchase to see if there is documentation of an agreement to pay taxes for 30 years.

Commissioners will meet with the Tribes' new Rainwater manager, Jerry Mendell, during their regular meeting June 7.

Carrie Chicken can be reached at cec@innw.net or 522-5289.


Tribe purchases since 1998

  • July 1999, 120 acres from Ken Brown at $462 per acre.
  • September 1999, 117 acres from Pugh family, $770 per acre.
  • December 2009, 1,315 acres from Galatin timber company, $890 per acre.


Pending: 500 acres expected to close next month.

All purchases are in the South Touchet River drainage.

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