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Group raises funds to purchase Whistler Canyon land

The Pacific Northwest Trail Association is asking for help to buy about 70 acres south of Oroville to preserve public access.

The Pacific Northwest Trail Association is asking for help to buy about 70 acres south of Oroville to preserve public access. Photo by Roger Harnack.

— With the help of donors, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association has raised about $44,000 with the hopes of purchasing 70.9 acres of cliffs and scab land near the Whistler Canyon trailhead.

Okanogan County plans to sell the property, along with about 32.5 acres of adjacent agricultural land, at auction in December.

The trailhead itself and part of the trail, about 3.77 acres, will remain under county ownership to secure public access, but a popular offshoot of the trail to Frog Pond will be sold.

John Knechtel, the association’s director of trail operations, said the organization had an additional $2,500 in pledges as of Friday. The plan is to raise about $70,000 by Dec. 13, although the county hasn’t finished its assessment of the land’s value yet.

“I’ve got a couple of land trusts that have guaranteed they’ll make up the difference of whatever we don’t have, but we’re hoping to not have to do that,” Knechtel said. “We’re not interested in the ag land. All we want is to protect the Pacific Northwest Trail and also the trail out to Frog Pond.”

The county commissioners have hosted an ongoing hearing about the issue since last month, the most recent being Oct. 7. The hearing was continued again until Monday to give the county departments more time to finish assessing the two parcels.

“We received a suggestion from our planning director but we felt more information was needed to help us find the (minimum) price,” Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy said.

The Whistler Canyon trail area, located off U.S. Highway 97 south of town, has become a popular destination for rock-climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts, local resident Joseph Enzenberger said Thursday at an Oroville Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Outdoor recreation is “really a draw” to the area, Enzenberger said. He referenced a concern that had previously been debunked by Commissioner Jim DeTro, which is that a nearby rock quarry owner would buy the agricultural parcel and expand the quarry to surround the trailhead.

The Pacific Northwest Trail Association has said more than 3,500 people used trails in Whistler Canyon over the summer.

A number of like-minded groups and individuals have come together to raise money, from trail users to organizations concerned with wildlife preservation, he said. A Facebook group called “Save Whistler Canyon Trailhead” has been created and had 137 “likes” as of Friday.

The federal Bureau of Land Management is still interested in purchasing the land, Knechtel said.

Kennedy told The Chronicle last month that the commissioners want to put the property back on the county tax rolls.

The county purchased the property with $405,000 of Title III funds in 2008, with a promise from the U.S. Forest Service to buy the land from the county as soon as it was able. The agreement fell through.

“This is a problem that’s been ongoing, and Okanogan County has been the only one out of all the players that did what it said it was going to do,” DeTro said in the Sept. 22 Chronicle. “As soon as Okanogan County plopped the money down, everybody ran for the tall grass.”

Donations to the Pacific Northwest Trail Association could be refunded if the plan falls through, or if the Bureau of Land Management purchases the land through the association.

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