OLYMPIA - The future of McNeil Island, which has been home to a federal or state prison since 1875, is very much up in the air with the closure this month of the corrections center there.
A bill heard Wednesday in the state Senate Ways and Means Committee is aimed at charting a path for the island’s future.
Senate Bill 5871 calls on the state Office of Financial Management to prepare a report that answers questions about ownership of the island and conducts an inventory of its environmental features, buildings and possible archaeological sites.
“We’re at a major historical point in the history of McNeil Island,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County. “The first thing we have to do is figure out who owns what.”
“It needs to be sorted out,” agreed Pierce County government relations director George Walk. “This bill makes all the sense in the world.”
Environmental groups are intrigued by the 13 miles of pristine shoreline and variety of marine mammals, birds, geoducks and other species that have been left relatively undisturbed on the island for decades.
“This is an important opportunity and responsibility,” Capitol Land Trust executive director Eric Erler testified. “We need to ensure that McNeil Island’s strategic importance in the recovery of Puget Sound is recognized.”
Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, an opponent of the prison closure, said the island needs a management plan that preserves artifacts from its colorful past.
Former prison employee homes easily accessible by boat are already showing signs of vandalism, and the salvageable items in the prison, including metal floors, are being recycled, Carrell said.
“We need to look at the future,” said Carrell, a sponsor of the bill. “But we need to go slow.”
Clouding future uses of the island is the continued presence of a state Department of Social and Health Services detention center for 280 sexually violent predators.
“Even with the Special Commitment Center there, we need to be planning for the future,” Fraser said.
The 4,445-acre island was home to a federal prison for more than 100 years. The federal Bureau of Prisons ruled the prison obsolete in 1976, but the state stepped in to lease the prison and island in 1981.
In 1984, the federal government transferred about 70 percent of the island – 3,119 acres – to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the remaining land to the state for operation of the prison.
The quit-claim deed was modified in 2001 to carve out 87 acres for the DSHS Special Commitment Center.
The deeds contain a number of restrictions and require that the land revert to the federal government, if the state stopped using the land for a corrections center, according to a Senate committee bill report.
The bill gives OFM $100,000 to complete the report by October 2012. It calls for a wide range of parties to be consulted, including tribes, local governments, state and federal agencies and other groups, including environmental, recreational and commercial interests.
The report would be used to start a long-range planning process for the island in the 2013-15 biennium.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org