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Nonprofit races to buy Badger land

Friends of Badger Mountain trying to raise money to buy land before developers to preserve public access

By Arielle Dreher

It’s a race against development for a local nonprofit working to preserve some of the Tri-City region’s natural habitat for future generations to enjoy.

Friends of Badger Mountain is working quickly and strategically to carve a trail through development, around and up Little Badger Mountain before houses completely cover the ridge side, blocking the possibility for public access in the future.

Friends of Badger Mountain is working to complete its bigger vision of having a connected ridge trail that starts in the Amon Basin, goes over three mountain ridges (Little Badger, Badger and Candy mountains) and eventually all the way to the Yakima River. In creating this connected trail, the nonprofit must connect Little Badger to Badger, and it is in the process of securing enough money to do that.

“We have to get in ahead of developers, and the area is just expanding at an incredible pace,” said David Comstock, a Friends of Badger Mountain board member. “It’s kind of a race to preserve these areas that people have taken for granted all their lives … that are now being consumed by development.”

“We (want) to preserve the last little pieces that are left to build this interconnecting trail system,” Comstock said.

Badger Mountain, its affectionately named younger sibling Little Badger and Candy Mountain are the only real mountains in the region that the public can climb because most of Rattlesnake Mountain and ridgeline is inaccessible, as it’s part of the Hanford Reach National Monument or the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The local mountains have not always been open to the public, however, and it was not until advocates like Friends of Badger partnered with cities and counties that they were accessible.

Friends of Badger formed in 2003 after a group of Hanford workers had a tradition of hiking Badger Mountain every New Year’s Day cut short by local private landowners who did not want them climbing on their property due to liability reasons.

The group first raised money and worked with Benton County to eventually create the Badger Mountain Centennial Preserve, a nearly 200-acre space now open to the public, with a park entrance in Richland.

The preserve belongs to the county, with a commitment from Friends to do trail maintenance and upkeep.

The Friends’ next project was Candy Mountain, and in 2017, it opened to the public, helping cut down on some of the foot traffic at Badger Mountain.

The Little Badger Mountain trail link would effectively connect Kennewick to Richland to West Richland and ultimately could go to Benton City, as that city works on converting old rail tracks and bridges to trails to meet it.

For Badger and Candy mountains, Friends worked with Benton County, but for the Little Badger project, it is working with the city of Richland.

The cost to complete the trail connection on Little Badger Mountain comes with an enormous price tag, in large part due to the value of the property, which private owners could sell to developers for a large profit.

Recognizing this, Comstock is in the midst of working with both developers and landowners to ensure they are paid a fair price for their land — and to ensure that Friends can secure the rights to the land that’s left between where the Badger Mountain trail ends at Queensgate Drive, up to the water tanks at the summit of Little Badger Mountain.

On some parcels, Friends of Badger is hiring an appraiser to determine how much the land they need to acquire to finish the Little Badger link is worth.

“We go through a good process to make sure that the landowners are fairly compensated if they’re going to work with us in creating these preserves,” Comstock said.

Friends of Badger does not keep the land it acquires, and the Little Badger project will eventually be a city of Richland park at the end of the process.

Once Friends acquires the land needed to complete the trail, the nonprofit will quickly deed the property to the city, with conditions it must adhere to, like keeping it for public use.

The Little Badger project will cost about $4 million for 80 acres when it is completed, Comstock said, mainly because some of the lots the nonprofit had to buy are prime developer real estate, with river and Tri-Cities views up on the Little Badger ridge.

“We don’t want to be looking at someone’s giant back wall privacy fence for this whole center corridor, so that’s why this is so important to us to actually preserve some acreage,” Comstock said. “If we were just doing a trail, we might need 10 feet, but we don’t want to be in a utility corridor with privacy fences on both sides and no view. We want to have the Badger Mountain-type experience, where we are meandering through the sage and having an enjoyable hike across the space.”

As of late last year, Friends of Badger had about three missing links in its proposed Little Badger project, but those links are slowly being connected as donations and funding sources emerge.

A more than $300,000 donation from Hanford contractor AECOM and subsidiary Washington Closure Hanford late last year helped secure the necessary funding to buy three ridge view lots on top of Little Badger Mountain, so the trail could reach the summit.

On April 2, the Richland City Council voted to approve $200,000 from the city’s tourism tax committee to help pay for one of the missing parcels as well.

Now, Comstock is focusing on finding a way to secure the last four parcels in the middle of the Little Badger site needed to connect the lower Queensgate part of the trail to the summit.

Friends of Badger Mountain is about $1.5 million short on funding for the remaining four parcels of the trail, Comstock estimated, and he is looking to various sources for help before beginning a fundraising effort later this year.

The group helped the city of Richland apply for a state Recreation and Conservation Office grant, which included trips to Olympia. The Little Badger project ranked 11th of 34 trail projects on the RCO funding list, which is funded in two-year cycles through the state’s budget. RCO would need to be funded at a record level, $120 million, for the Little Badger project to see any funding.

Comstock also pursued another route, appealing directly to the various District 8 lawmakers for funding from the state budget.

The 2019-21 budget currently is working its way through the Legislature. In the House version of the state budget, there is a $464,000 earmark to help pay for the project, but the Senate must approve this as well.

Comstock won’t know how much state funding he receives until the end of April, when the legislative session concludes and lawmakers approve a final budget.

Friends of Badger Mountain plans to begin work on the Little Badger trail this spring, when a contractor hired by the nonprofit is finished evaluating soil on the slope of Badger to Queensgate. Comstock expects work to begin as soon as fall on this portion of the trail.

Because the slope is steep, Friends will hire a contractor to build retaining wall structures through a competitive bidding process.

After that is completed, the nonprofit will lead the volunteer effort to build the trail to the top of the ridge, hopefully this fall. The hope is to have an interconnected trail completed by the end of 2020, Comstock said.

More than 200,000 people a year hiked Badger Mountain on average in the last six years, by the Friends’ count. A city of Richland park’s survey found that 19 percent of visitors to the mountain were not from Benton or Franklin counties, Comstock said, meaning the preserve and the trails have become a tourist attraction in the area.

Comstock pointed to state recreation surveys that show outdoor recreation as an economic driver as well as asset to the community. He said he has conversations with small-business owners who take prospective employees up Badger to show off recreational opportunities.

He said the interconnected ridge trail is a way to preserve the area’s natural habitat for future generations.

“It’s incredibly powerful to know we are participating in something that will preserve this area and public access to the summit of Little Badger that will be enjoyed for generations to come,” he said. “I mean, my kids can take their kids up there and say, ‘Hey, my dad helped preserve this for everyone.’ ”

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