The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Brendan Relaford
For The Sentinel 

DNR land: bounty and bane for land lessees


March 27, 2019


OUT STANDING IN THE FIELD: Solar panels and cows will be a common sight in parts of Klickitat County-but many land owners are angry with the DNR about its habit of abruptly ending leases.

New energy projects are poised to bring big bucks into Klickitat County, even as how they get here provokes sharp anger for some.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, head of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), announced on March 6 the first lease of state trust lands for solar power. DNR has granted a 40-lease of 480 acres thirty miles east of Goldendale, just west of Bickleton, to Avangrid Renewables of Portland for a 150-megawatt solar power project consisting of 30 solar modules. The plant is part of the company's proposed Lund Hill Project, which would be located on approximately 1,800 acres on a mix of land leased from private landowners and DNR. The project is expected to produce about 340,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually, equal to what around 27,000 Washington households consume. The company says it expects the plant to go into operation sometime next year.

To lease state lands for solar power, the DNR must terminate leases with cattle ranchers. Many ranchers in southcentral Washington have taken exception to this decision because their leases have been terminated earlier than expected, forcing them to expedite the search for new grazing land and to reallocate their assets.

Looking to put better protections in place for farmers and ranchers leasing state trust lands, State Representative Chris Corry (R-Yakima) has introduced a bill (HB 1964) that would change the DNR standards when terminating a land lease. Corry says the change is necessary to develop trust between the agency and land lessees. "This is a partnership, and the state needs to hold up its end of the bargain. When the Department of Natural Resources moves to terminate a land lease, farmers and ranchers often take an ugly financial hit. We need to give them confidence their lease agreements will be honored. My bill helps that relationship-building process. Fundamentally this is a tenant rights issue. We wouldn't do this to people renting a home- moving them out simply because somebody else has more money."

Cosponsored by Representatives Brian Blake (D-Longview), Alex Ybarra, (R-Quincy). Gina Mosbrucker (R-Goldendale), Paul Harris (R-Vancouver), Bob McCaslin (R-Spokane), Andrew Barkis (R-Olympia) and Chris Gildon (R-Puyallup), HB 1964 stipulates that any nondefault or early termination provision included in a state land lease for agricultural or grazing purposes must require advance written notice of at least 180 days by the department to the lessee prior to termination of the lease and provide the lessee with written documentation demonstrating that it has included the leased land in a plan for higher and better use, land exchange or sale. The department also may not terminate a lease early, other than for default, without the written consent of the lessee.

Writing in support of HB1964, Kelly Kreps, a White Salmon rancher, said that the state needs to generate as much income as possible from public lands but also needs to honor its contracts. He suggested that DNR be required to give two to three years notice before terminating dryland farming and grazing leases, five to seven years on irrigated farmland and five to 15 on orchards and vineyards, as well as reimburse infrastructure costs at a graduated rate, depending on how early the termination is.

In a letter to The Sentinel, rancher Ann Fernandez of Centerville said that "extensive" work goes into building fences, corrals, chutes and watering facilities on leased land. "Giving six months of notice and then 60 days to remove all improvements or lose them seems very little consideration for the rancher. How is he to recoup the losses?" she asked.

Mercer Ranches of Prosser said that it has leased about 640 acres from DNR for more than 40 years and has "invested heavily" in irrigation, equipment and employees to farm the land.

DNR also terminated leases on 640 acres west of Goldendale for another solar farm soon to go out for bid, said Dave West, a Goldendale rancher who does not lease land from the state. He said the state should compensate ranchers for loss of income when it terminates leases early.

Jim Sizemore, a Klickitat County rancher, told Capitol Press, "There is great competition for new grazing land, and the new lessee should have to buy out the cattlemen's leases."

On the other side of the issue, Angus Brodie, DNR deputy supervisor for uplands, testified that the bill could thwart DNR's mandate to find the highest-paying and best use of land to generate revenue for schools. "This bill protects lessees' rights over interests of the trust," Brodie says. Nevertheless, he promises to work to minimize impacts of early terminations. The Washington State School Directors Association also testified against the bill.

Revenue from the 1.1 million acres of leased state trust lands helps fund public school construction across Washington State. According to DNR, it had been leasing the land for $2 per acre per year for cattle grazing but is now leasing it to Avangrid for $300 per acre per year. "State-managed lands have generated more than $1.5 billion for public services over the past two decades," says Franz, "but we are always looking for ways to meet new Market demands and increase benefits for Washingtonians. Solar power helps us take full advantage of the economic and ecological potential of our public lands." She adds that the lease is a win-win-win for the people of Washington, as it generates significant revenue for schools while creating jobs and providing clean, affordable energy to homes and businesses.

The House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee heard the bill Feb. 19 and passed it, 8-5, on Feb. 22. It's now in the Appropriations Committee.


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