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Donated elk habitat

Cowlitz County and two partner are trying to buy 4,000 acres of Weyerhaeuser timberland in the upper Toutle Valley. This westward view from Elk Rock encompasses most of the proposed purchase area. The Hoffstadt Creek Bridge is visible at the upper right. The north fork of the Toutle River is to the left.

If all goes according to plan, more than 4,000 acres of Weyerhaeuser Co. timberland land along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway could be preserved to protect outdoor opportunities and improve salmon and elk habitat in the upper Toutle River valley.

Cowlitz County, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have been pushing to acquire the property in the Hoffstadt Bluffs area for the past few years, Commissioner Dennis Weber said April 6.

Weber said WDFW made a similar proposal four years ago, but the Legislature was busy grappling with the state Supreme Court’s so-called McCleary school funding decision. Now, Weber said, the three groups believe the time is right to build support and request funds.

The proposed land purchase is located between the north fork of the Toutle River and Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. It stretches from the Eco Park Resort to Elk Rock. According to a WDFW document, the land would become a part of the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area. Its eastern end would butt up with the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, another preserve.

The area contains 17 miles of streams, spawning and rearing areas for threatened salmon and steelhead and critical elk habitat, according to a WDFW report outlining the conservation effort. It was part of the area blasted by the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Although the forest has rebounded through Weyerhaeuser’s tree-planting efforts, the north Toutle itself is still a ruined river and presents a major obstacle to rebuilding eruption-damaged fish runs. That’s why preserving the habitat that is out there is important and urgent, according to WDFW.

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Hoffstadt Hills

The yellow area on the provided map is the proposed 4,000 acres of land the Cowlitz County Commissioners, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation want to acquire to expand winter elk habitat.

“This forest stands on this site are currently reaching harvest age and will more than likely be logged within the next few years,” the document says. “Acquiring lands before this happens will be critical in saving habitat and keeping a diversity of species in the landscape.”

If the land is logged, there’s also “speculation” that Weyerhaeuser may sell the acreage for small acreage recreational housing, the report says.

Preserving the area would open up or preserve hunting, hiking, birding and horseback-riding opportunities, the state report notes. Public access to the area is now limited by Weyerhaeuser’s access fee policy.

The WDFW document also states that “selective timber harvest methods” would be used in the area to improve habitat and create more stable, mature forest conditions.

Weber said the groups’ plan is to send an grant application to the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office. Then, the Legislature would receive a recommendation from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office and it would be up for approval in next year’s legislative session.

If the proposal is approved, cost estimates and negotiations between the state and Weyerhauser take place next year. According to Weber, the acquisition could be complete by 2020 if all goes according to plan.

The funds used to purchase the land would come from the Recreation and Conservation Office, Weber said. The state expects to partner with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to help finance the project.

For now, Weber is simply trying to raise public support for the acquisition, sending people a template letter of support to send to Regional Wildlife Program Manager Sandra Jonker.

“This project ... will complement Cowlitz County’s proposed Toutle Valley Community Forest Trust (CFT) by sharing common values of protecting habitat for multiple species and preserving clean air and water, while enhancing public access for wildlife viewing, horseback riding, hunting, and other recreational activities,” the letter states.

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