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Originally published Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 3:51 PM

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State loses out in sale of Benton County ranch

Washington state had hoped to buy and preserve a historic Benton County ranch on Rattlesnake Mountain, but the land is going to a private buyer instead.

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PROSSER, Benton County — Washington state had hoped to buy and preserve a historic Benton County ranch on Rattlesnake Mountain, but the land is going to a private buyer instead.

A partnership called Gamble Land and Timber has purchased the 21-square-mile McWhorter Ranch for $7.6 million — far above the $1.8 million the Legislature authorized in 2011, the Tri-City Herald reports (http://is.gd/iPiU3n).

The Fish and Wildlife Department hoped to preserve the swath of arid lands' shrub steppe, an ecosystem that's been disappearing beneath development in Eastern Washington. It's a possible nesting habitat for endangered ferruginous hawks. Fewer than 40 breeding pairs remain, and wind turbines, houses and vineyards are taking shape on the ridges the hawks need for nesting and foraging.

Fish and Wildlife also had proposed opening the land to the public for hiking, horseback riding, bird watching and some hunting. But the agency has consistently said that while it hoped to be considered as a buyer, it would accept the decision of the McWhorter family on the ranch's future.

"We hope in the near future to have a conversation with the new owner," said Mike Livingston, Fish and Wildlife regional director.

The state would like to discuss whether the new owner is interested in preserving any of the ranch or selling any of it to the state, he said.

The registered agent for Gamble Land and Timber is John William Cass Gebbers, of Brewster, Okanogan County. Gebbers Farms is a family operation with 5,000 acres of orchard. It has been growing apples and sweet cherries at the base of Washington's Cascade Range for more than a century.

A spokeswoman for Gebbers Farms declined to immediately discuss plans for the ranch.

The land, in the midst of prime Columbia Valley wine country, borders the Hanford Reach National Monument on the top of Rattlesnake Mountain and stretches down the mountain's south slope between Prosser and Benton City. Below it are irrigated rows of grapes, hops and blueberries on smaller properties. Much of the ranch itself is open country, covered with bluebunch wheatgrass and sage.

The McWhorter Ranch was owned by R.J. McWhorter, a third-generation Mid-Columbia rancher, until his death at age 86 in November 2007.

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