Land acquisitions

Scenic photo showing grassy hills, wildflowers, and mountains with dramatic clouds in the sky.
Photo by WDFW
Horse Spring Coulee Unit of Sinlahekin Wildlife Area

The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s mission is to preserve, protect, and perpetuate fish, wildlife, and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities. Land acquisition is one of many ways the department has worked to meet this mandate, resulting in the creation of 33 wildlife areas and nearly 500 water access areas around the state.

WDFW now provides active management for more than one million acres of public land and nearly 500 water access areas to sustain wildlife habitat and public recreation for current and future generations.

WDFW's rigorous review process is designed to determine which properties will best meet the state's conservation goals and recreational priorities. For this reason, the process is employed even in situations when property owners seek to donate their land.

Key steps in acquiring wild lands for habitat and outdoor recreation include:

  • Scoping: All proposed acquisitions are reviewed by department staff in various programs and regions according to guidelines established in WDFW's Lands 20/20 policy. This review includes consideration of species and habitat management plans, regional conservation initiatives, community perspectives on land use, and recreation needs.
  • Public review: Proposals under consideration are outlined on this page and publicized for public review. After reviewing the public comments, the WDFW Director finalizes a list of projects that have approval to move to the funding stage.
  • Funding: Since WDFW does not use operating budget funds for land acquisitions, the department relies on state and federal grants to purchase identified properties. After a project has received approval from the Director, WDFW will seek funding – a process that may take several years. Potential grant sources include the state of Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program and federal grants through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund.
  • Approval and acquisition: As with any real estate transaction, acquisition of a given property can depend on a variety of factors. By law, WDFW can only purchase land from willing sellers at fair market appraised value. Before pursuing any land acquisition, the department confers with the landowner – often at that person's initiation – to determine their interest in selling. If funding becomes available, appraisals are completed, and an agreement is reached with a willing seller, WDFW submits the proposed acquisition for final approval by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission. 

Approved Lands 20/20 projects for 2023

WDFW strategic acquisition priorities


WDFW’s Strategic Acquisition Priorities are designed to provide guidance on what land to buy and where to buy it for staff engaged in acquisition activities. In addition, the acquisition priorities communicate WDFW’s focus to external partners. The priorities are a balance between providing specific guidance while also allowing for flexibility as new opportunities are found. The impetus for developing these priorities came from several sources. Foremost, WDFW is focused on effectively using state resources to meet the needs of Washington residents. In addition, by articulating WDFW priorities, we invite residents and conservation partners to work with us to implement and shape these priorities over time. Internally, WDFW empowers staff members to continue working opportunistically with residents to achieve these conservation priorities.

Acquisition is one of many conservation tools employed by WDFW to achieve our goals. Prior to acquiring a parcel of land, a deliberate process is used to be sure that acquisition is better than any of the other tools available: voluntary protection, regulatory protection, ownership by a local land trust or other local entity, incentives, or education of landowner. Acquisition comes with perpetual protection but also perpetual maintenance: long term costs are accounted for in the purchasing of new parcels.

Acquisition principles

WDFW acquires land for the following reasons:

  • Conserve and restore the diversity of Washington's fish and wildlife species and their habitats.
  • Provide access for sustainable fishing, hunting, and other wildlife-related recreational opportunities, which generate billions of dollars of tourism and are key to the state's quality of life.
  • Foster experiences and exploration.
  • Preserve Washington's natural and cultural heritage.
  • Enhance management of our current lands.
  • Preserve working lands for agriculture, forestry, and other sectors of the outdoor economy, particularly in rural areas.

WDFW follows a rigorous internal process when considering whether to pursue funding to purchase new lands. This process is guided by a set of principles and strategic acquisition priorities. The department seeks to be strategic and selective about expanding the state's conservation and recreation land base by:

  • Focusing on landscape and habitat priorities that provide the greatest benefit to fish, wildlife, and communities.
  • Prioritizing lands that provide long term fish and wildlife-related recreation opportunities that are limited on a local, regional, or statewide basis.
  • Entering into voluntary agreements with property owners who want to actively manage their lands for conservation, recreation, or other fish and wildlife-related values. These agreements can include accommodations to allow the public to access private lands for hunting or fishing or to provide conservation practices under the Farm Bill (Conservation Reserve Program, etc.) or the Endangered Species Act (e.g. Safe Harbor Agreements) that provide financial or regulatory incentives.
  • Considering whether a different land manager would be more appropriate given the resources, conditions, and landscape context.
  • Considering the landscape context to ensure that WDFW's properties are managed in coordination with surrounding land management in mind.
  • Focusing on parcels facing risks that could compromise existing statewide fish and wildlife values, such as land uses or climate changes.
  • Purchasing land or conservation easements only from willing sellers at fair market value.
  • Soliciting community input and local support before making acquisition decisions.

Acquisition priorities

The following acquisition priorities describe current areas of focus for WDFW land acquisition. Projects are evaluated based on these priorities and the department looks for projects that achieve multiple priorities.

Conserve and restore the diversity of Washington's fish and wildlife species and habitats

  • Freshwater wetlands and marine "pocket estuaries" that contain unique or threatened/endangered species.
  • Watersheds and uplands that connect critical habitats and promote wildlife movement.
  • Old growth forests in eastern and western Washington.
  • Winter range for deer, elk, and other ungulates in eastern Washington.
  • Spawning grounds and habitat used by species of salmon, steelhead, and bull trout that are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
  • Habitat for Columbian white-tailed deer, western gray squirrel, pygmy rabbits, and prairie grouse, and nest sites of golden eagles and ferruginous hawks.
  • Lands along energy and transportation corridors that support the movement of wildlife.

Enhancing sustainable fishing, hunting, and other wildlife-related outdoor opportunities

  • Securing lands that provide quality hunting opportunities.
  • Securing lands that enhance recreational access.
  • Improving access to marine shorelines for fishing and shellfish harvest.
  • Improving boating access, especially for the lower reaches of the Spokane and Columbia rivers.

Improving management of current lands

  • Providing or maintaining access to existing lands.
  • Acquiring small parcels that support ecological connectivity and whose acquisition would help to improve management actions such as fire protection and firefighting.
  • Securing access to lands needed to maintain hatchery intake structures or other necessary hatchery infrastructure.

Preserving working lands for agriculture, forestry, and other sectors of the outdoor economy, particularly in rural areas

  • Maintaining working lands that can be managed consistent with maintenance of ecological integrity.
  • Helping prevent or reduce wildlife damage or conflicts on surrounding private lands.
  • Preserving community character by maintaining open space in the face of development pressure.

How much land is enough?

Members of the public sometimes ask when we will know that the department owns enough land. When thinking about whether or not acquiring more land is the best path forward, the department takes several factors into consideration.

  • Species specific
    • Acquiring lands can help with species recovery and game management efforts.
  • Landscape specific
    • Newly acquired lands can connect existing protected lands, making them easier to manage and helping deal with impacts from climate change.
  • Recreation
    • Lands provide habitat for hunted and fished species, places for people to hunt and fish, and places for people to view and enjoy wildlife.
  • Societal
    • Acquiring lands remains consistent with open space needs and values in Washington.

When the human population stops growing and needing places to hunt, fish, and view wildlife, and when diverse populations of fish and wildlife species are secure, the department will then have acquired enough land. Until those realities are achieved, the department will continue to follow acquisition principles and look for strategic land areas that will help with protecting land and water for wildlife and people in Washington.

Payments in Lieu of Tax (PILT)

WDFW’s role

Although all state lands are exempt from local property taxes, the state Legislature has put WDFW’s wildlife lands into a substitute tax system known as PILT: payments in lieu of tax. Ninety percent of WDFW’s land qualifies for PILT. The other ten percent of WDFW’s land doesn’t qualify including office sites, the game farm, fish hatcheries, water access sites, state transfers, and tidelands.


PILT payments have been made to the counties for more than 50 years. Historical records show that in the 1970s and 1980s, the Department of Game was paying between 70 cents and $1 per acre in PILT, depending on how the county assessed it. More recently, some counties have been assessing PILT at the Open Space rate available to private landowners. The Open Space rate is calculated on the land’s value, not its acreage.

Primary stakeholders

PILT is paid annually to every county that elects to receive it. Fifteen counties have elected to receive PILT from WDFW. In 2024, WDFW paid $1,781,300 in PILT to those 15 counties. The counties then distribute the PILT to the taxing districts in the same way that local property taxes from private property are distributed.

How does this impact the public?

PILT payments allow costs that would otherwise be borne solely by the other property owners in the county to be spread across all Washington taxpayers.  This is appropriate as benefits of new public land for wildlife habitat and recreation accrue to all Washingtonians.

Primary partners working with WDFW

WDFW’s primary partners in PILT are the 15 counties that have elected to receive PILT: Adams, Asotin, Chelan, Columbia, Douglas, Ferry, Garfield, Grant, Grays Harbor, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, and Yakima counties. Together, these counties have the vast majority of the qualifying WDFW land at this time. If the other 24 counties opted into the PILT program, WDFW would pay the PILT in those counties too.

Budget details

PILT is paid by the State Treasurer’s Office. Some counties calculate PILT on the number of acres in each parcel; other counties calculate PILT on the land’s assessed value which changes from year to year. In 2024, WDFW paid $59,230 in weed assessments to the 15 PILT counties.

Contact Information

Lands Division Manager
Cynthia Wilkerson

Property Management Supervisor
Jerrod Ploof

Additional resources

The state PILT law is found at RCW 77.12.201 and RCW 77.12.203.