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Cross Base Highway Controversy

Highway would bisect largest remnant of Puget Sound oak-woodland prairie

Today, the Sound Transit Board will be hearing a proposal from the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) that would include funding for the construction of a controversial highway.

Seattle, WA Jan 26, 2006

Today, the Sound Transit Board will be hearing a proposal from the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) that would include funding for the construction of a controversial highway. 

The Cross Base Highway project would build a new four-lane, six-mile highway across Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base in Pierce County. If constructed, the $200 million dollar highway would bisect the largest remnant oak woodland-prairie in western Washington, drive out local equestrian businesses, and encourage undesirable sprawl, say members of the Cross Base Coalition, a group opposing the construction of the new highway. The unique oak woodland-prairies, today the rarest habitat type in Washington State, once covered nearly 150,000 acres across the south Puget Sound lowlands. Today, due to development, agriculture, invasive species, and other factors, only about 3 percent remains.

 Members of the Coalition, which include Tahoma Audubon, Conservation Northwest, Native Plant Society, and several equestrian businesses and organizations, will be attending the Sound Transit hearing in Seattle today to express their concerns directly to the Sound Transit Board. The coalition supports Sound Transit’s proposal to broaden the reach of our regional transit system, but opposes the RTID legislation as currently written – which includes funding for the Cross Base Highway. The Board has already received hundreds of letters from concerned residents on the issue in the last few days.

 “The Board's worthy transit projects are much more likely to gain approval if they remain separate from RTID's most controversial highway construction projects,” said Jasmine Minbashian, communications director for Conservation Northwest. “I hope the Board will consider that this prairie is so unique and special to people all across Puget Sound.”

 The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) believes that the remaining South Puget Sound prairies may be possibly the rarest habitat in North America, home to at least 29 species of federal and/or state threatened, endangered, candidate and sensitive plant and animal species of concern, 18 of which are in the immediate vicinity of the proposed highway.

 The previous environmental documents for the Cross-Base Highway called for mitigating the impact of the highway by adding additional protected acreage, but the additional acreage does not provide habitat for the rare and endangered prairie species, including at least nine threatened plant and animal species, among them the Mardon skipper butterfly, the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, the western gray squirrel, the wtreaked horned lark, the northern spotted owl, the bald eagle, the Mazama pocket gopher, golden paintbrush and water howellia, a wetland flower.

“The county proposes replacing our rare priceless oak-woodland prairie with a few hundred acres of cow pastures,” Minbashian added. “This largest remaining piece of oak-woodland prairie is irreplaceable.”

 Melody Fleckenstein, a member of the American Lake Gardens Equestrian Alliance expressed concerns not only for the plants and animals at risk, but also for the people. “Not only are the animals at risk, American Lake Gardens is an environmental justice community, meaning it has the lowest per capita income in Pierce County, along with Spanaway,” Fleckstein explained. “These stables not only provide employment, but jobs for these disadvantaged kids, the only handicapped-riding programs in the area, and a form of inexpensive recreation. If housing prices are driven up by the road, these people will no longer be able to afford to live here, where will they go?”

 For over 50 years, the Woodbrook Hunt Club and six businesses have operated equestrian facilities along the border of the prairies. Through an arrangement with the Fort Lewis, riders have access to designated open prairies and forests of Fort Lewis. The proposed highway would erect an eight-foot “noise wall” along the property lines of these equestrian businesses. But business owners say this is inadequate. They state that the Environmental Impact Study did not rightly consider the historic Woodbrook club and the six equestrian business that will have to shut their stable doors to the more than 200 horses they house and 400 plus students they teach.

 “It will be unsafe to train young riders and horses without a sufficient buffer from construction and traffic noise,” said Jennifer Hansen. Hansen owns one of six equestrian businesses threatened with closure. “Our clients come to ride in peace and enjoy the oaks and prairie views, not to listen to crashing trees and a constant hum of traffic!”

 Sound Transit Board Meeting is in downtown Seattle on January 26th from 1 to 4 pm in Union Station located at 401 South Jackson Street.

 Background on oak-woodland prairies:

The rarest form of habitat in Washington, the endangered south sound prairies once covered 150,000 (some estimates say 250,000) acres in pre-settlement times. Covering most of Pierce, Thurston, and Mason counties and extending into portions of Lewis, Cowlitz, Clark, Wahkiakum, Island and Clallum Counties, the westside grasslands are the legacy of the Vashon glaciation. The giant glacier that created Puget Sound left behind huge outwash plains of deep gravel deposits with poor soil and quick drainage. Several thousand years after the glacial retreat, a shift to a warmer drier climate in the Puget Trough area set the stage for a mosaic of prairies, wetlands, and associated oak and conifer woodlands. The "Tacoma prairies" (as they are sometimes called) are the present-day remnants. Small patches of prairie habitat also existed outside the Puget Sound lowlands, most notably in the San Juan Islands and near the Columbia River Gorge.

 The prairies are home to remnant population of western bluebirds and ponderosa pines. Each spring, prairies bloom with purple camas lilies, yellow buttercups, pink shooting stars, larkspur and pink sea blush. Lewis and Clark reportedly thought huge fields of the purple prairie camas were actually lakes when viewed from afar. Today the largest remaining piece of native prairie is an artillery range in Ft. Lewis. A few small parks and preserves exist as well, but all of the grasslands require careful attention to prevent encroachment by more aggressive species, most notably Douglas fir and non-native Scotch broom.

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