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A new conservation partner

North Thurston High students plant wild strawberries during a work party by volunteers for The Nature Conservancy at the Thurston County Glacial Heritage Preserve southwest of Littlerock in February 2009. The Center for Natural Lands Management, based in San Diego, is taking over operations of The Nature Conservancy's South Sound program.
North Thurston High students plant wild strawberries during a work party by volunteers for The Nature Conservancy at the Thurston County Glacial Heritage Preserve southwest of Littlerock in February 2009. The Center for Natural Lands Management, based in San Diego, is taking over operations of The Nature Conservancy's South Sound program. The Olympian

A San Diego-based conservation group is about to take control of The Nature Conservancy's program to protect rare South Sound species and habitats.

Those close to the acquisition, which was announced Tuesday, said most of The Nature Conservancy’s 14 employees based in Olympia soon will be working for the Center for Natural Lands Management on efforts to protect prairie and oak woodlands, as well as salmon and other species along the Black River.

While terms of the program sale have not been settled, it appears that the 20 years of work by the conservancy in South Sound will continue uninterrupted.

“We don’t want to be perceived as an invading army,” said David Brunner, executive director of the California land trust that specializes in protecting habitat for imperiled species. “Our goal and purpose is to provide a new institutional home for their South Sound program.”

The Nature Conservancy owns or has conservation easements on seven properties in South Sound totaling about 1,065 acres. Transfer of the lands to the California nonprofit group will take place in a separate transaction.

The conservancy announced last year that it was divesting of the South Sound prairie-restoration project because of budget cuts and a shift in priorities to focus on coastal and Eastern Washington forests and salmon recovery.

“We’re thrilled to have found an organization that shares our commitment to protecting endangered species and habitat through collaborative conservation work,” said Karen Anderson, The Nature Conservancy’s Washington director.

Brunner said the South Sound program will continue to assist public agencies and private landowners to restore and protect prairie lands in locations such as the Thurston County Glacial Heritage Preserve, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and private properties across a landscape where at least 92 percent of the South Sound prairie habitat has been altered or lost to development.

The Center for Natural Lands Management, which has about 20 employees and an annual budget of about $4 million, formed in 1990. It manages more than 34,000 acres at 70 wildlife preserves throughout California. The preserves are home to 50 species listed by state and federal agencies as threatened or endangered.

The new partner was favorably received Tuesday by others working on South Sound prairie protection.

“I think it’s a very positive move,” said Eric Erler, executive director of the Capitol Land Trust. “They bring a lot of scientific expertise and credibility to the table.”

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has worked with the center for years,” said Ken Berg, manager of the federal agency’s Washington office. “They’re a solid conservation partner and we’re looking forward to working with them here in Washington.”

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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