Back in 2011, I was hired by TransAlta to help with their public relations efforts after the agreement was hammered out with the state to shutter the two massive coal-burning boilers.
The first boiler closed just this past month. The second boiler is set to shut down in 2025. Before that, the coal mine on the TransAlta property was shut down in 2006. Lewis County lost about 600 great paying jobs when the mine shut down.
As part of the agreement to mine coal, TransAlta promised to return the 9,600 acres back to its original state. As part of my duties in 2012, I was flown over the property in a helicopter to photograph and record the progress of reclamation. I remember seeing a bear run across the land, as well as a herd of elk. The elk in particular thrive as hunting is off limits on the TransAlta property.
I also remember the reclamation project underway. The land was starting to retain its original sparkling status.
Talking with some of the old miners still working the reclamation project, we all agreed it would be a great place to build houses along the creeks and lakes. I imagined a championship caliber 18-hole golf course, along with the housing development.
It’s not often a 9,600-acre pristine property not far from Interstate 5 becomes available. Lewis County needs to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity. Unfortunately, the state Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife suddenly has made a play for all of the land as a set-aside for wildlife and threatened species.
Lewis County already has enough land set aside for wildlife as about 60% of the county’s land is exempt from taxation.
In addition, 10 years ago TransAlta agreed to set aside large tracts of the mining land for industrial development. It was part of the agreement between the state and TransAlta. The county and state have already poured millions of dollars into infrastructure getting the property ready for industrial use.
We need an industrial anchor for future jobs right here in Lewis County. We already have enough wildlife, specifically in East Lewis County where fishing and hunting opportunities abound.
Fellow Chronicle columnist Julie McDonald in a column earlier this week had perhaps a better idea than a championship golf course for the property. The state is casting about to locate a “SeaTac 2” airport. It has been looking at several properties, including the Ed Carlson Memorial Field airport near Toledo.
The airport would need up to 4,000 acres for the new airport. Typically a project this size would need to be located near transportation hubs such as I-5. Rail access is desirable as well, which TransAlta already possesses. McDonald asked why not build it on the TransAlta property?
A bonus would be the project would not have to take homes and businesses via eminent domain to come up with enough acreage, as would be the case for the proposed Toledo airport.
The tax base from such an airport for Lewis County, along with hundreds if not thousands of jobs, would be a local economic boon.
Another suggestion, by Lewis County Assessor Dianne Dorey would have, at the least, the TransAlta property reserved for forest land. That way, the land could be taxed, and when cut, the timber revenue would produce financing to build local schools.
As I dream away, I have another project in mind. NASCAR was nosing about the Pacific Northwest to build a major speedway. Back in 2005 NASCAR tried to build a 75,000-seat NASCAR track in Snohomish County.
It never came to be, but NASCAR officials kept looking, including land near Bremerton, Yakima and Moses Lake. Portland also was mentioned.
How about a speedway on the TransAlta property? It would certainly bring jobs and a tax base to our area, as well as a major entertainment venue.
Whatever happens, selling the property to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is at the bottom of what I would like to see.
Fortunately, I am just your humble columnist putting forth some silly ideas. What really needs to happen is the state to take a step back and bring all the leaders of Lewis County together in a transparent effort to plan for what would be best for our county.
This is too big of an opportunity to simply let the 9,600 acres go to Fish and Wildlife without a thorough vetting.
Michael Wagar is a former president and publisher of The Chronicle.