A look at LandWatch Nonprofit known for land-use appeals and lawsuits started small in Sisters By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin ...
Conversion of private industrial timberlands to residential development has been identified as a major concern by the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and the Department of Land Conservation and Development. The problems with this conversion are numerous, including not only permanent loss of productive timberlands but also loss of critical wildlife habitat. Probably the greatest problem in Central Oregon, though, is the location of residential development in high fire risk areas. The fire-based ponderosa pine ecology guarantees periodic fires, which have been catastrophic lately. ODF studies have also shown that residential development increases the risk of fire. Residents and firefighters are put at extreme risk and taxpayers end up footing the bill for the extra fire protection needed for the developed areas.
Read Wildlife Prevention and Control in Areas of Residential Forest Land Development
The forest conversion process often occurs after a period of unsustainable logging has so diminished the timber value of the land that the potential short term value of residential development exceeds the much longer term timber value associated with the regrowth/next rotation of the forest. Another critical element of the conversion process includes purchasers of the timberland which are not traditional timber companies and which do not have community ties to Oregon. These speculative investors view the forestlands as a commodity that can be “flipped” for higher profits. An additional factor is the presence of a local real estate market that fuels the demand. Finally, an additional element in Central Oregon is the extension of fire protection to these forest areas by rural fire protection districts and the Oregon Department of Forestry which effectively subsidized development by expanding RFPD boundaries to cover the lands to be developed and by writing letters to county governments to endorse the landowners’ fire management plans
One area where this forest conversion process has been taking place is in Central Oregon, and particularly in the forested foothills of the Three Sisters Mountains between Bend and Sisters. Historically known as the Bull Springs Tree Farm, the original 40,000 plus acre timber block has steadily been diminished over the years. The process accelerated in the 2000’s when Crown Pacific virtually liquidated the forest and began selling off blocks of land near Bend for development
LandWatch has been opposing Deschutes County partition and dwelling approvals on these lands for the past 10 years.
A sample of the associated Land Use Board of Appeals and Court of Appeals cases are:
Sisters Forest Planning Committee v. Deschutes County, 45 Or LUBA 145 (2003)
Sisters Forest Planning Committee v. Deschutes County, 48 Or LUBA 78 (2004), rev’d in part, 198 Or App 311, 108 P3d 1175 (2005)
Central Oregon LandWatch v. Deschutes County, 53 Or LUBA 290 (2007)
Central Oregon LandWatch v. Deschutes County, 52 Or LUBA 582 (2006)
Central Oregon LandWatch v. Deschutes County, 2010-085 (2011).
In an effort to find a more comprehensive solution, LandWatch in 2009 proposed to the Oregon Legislature the creation of the Skyline Forest. The idea of the Skyline Forest was the creation of the Deschutes Basin Land Trust which earlier spearheaded efforts for the creation of community forests.
See Map of Skyline Forest
LandWatch proposed that the current owner of the Skyline Forest area, Fidelity National, be granted special permission to build up to 137 dwelling units on a limited area of the Skyline Forest, effectively moving the maximum residential development approval of the entire 33,000 acres to a more concentrated development on only 3,000 acres. The remaining 30,000 acres would be undeveloped and transferred to the Deschutes Basin Land Trust.
During this legislative process, Fidelity asserted that the 137 units did not “cancel out” and that up to 282 units were needed. For the greater density, Fidelity would remove development rights from other forestlands to the south. Though these lands were at far less risk of development and had less wildlife value, LandWatch reluctantly agreed to the higher development figure. Fidelity was given to 2014 to exercise this development option would result in the creation of the Skyline Forest.
Then in 2010 Fidelity announced that it wanted a sweeter deal and would go back to the Legislature for approval of over 800 dwellings, roughly comparable to the Black Butte Ranch destination resort and the population of the town of Sisters. LandWatch fought back against these new plans, claiming that Fidelity was breaking the deal that it had made just two years before. Additionally, Fidelity was proposing transfer of development rights from lands which had essentially no development potential. The increased density of development in the Skyline Forest made the concept unworkable primarily because it would put even more residents and firefighters at risk and because roads are simply inadequate to provide adequate evacuation. Impacts from the additional population would also effectively gut the effectiveness of the Tumalo Deer Winter Range.
The Skyline Forest experiment shows both the potential and the pitfalls of efforts to prevent or forestall the conversion of private industrial timberlands to residential development. On the one hand, it shows that conservation interests and owners of the forestlands working together with the State can come to possible creative solutions for the problem. On the other hand, it also shows how out-of-state speculators can effectively subvert the process by demanding more and more profits from successive legislatures. Ultimately, while creative solutions are needed, the important ingredient is the good faith of owners who have some interest and ties to the community that would encourage them to follow through on the deals that they make.