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MailTribune.com
  • Untouched parcels or untapped profits

    An Oregon state lands board weighs whether to sell pristine lands to buoy public schools
  • GALICE — The osprey perched on its nest atop a snag overlooking the Rogue River has a perfect spot to keep an eye out for a fat trout rising to the surface.
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  • GALICE — The osprey perched on its nest atop a snag overlooking the Rogue River has a perfect spot to keep an eye out for a fat trout rising to the surface.
    But the future of the real estate underneath that snag near Galice is up in the air.
    Known as Galice Parcel No. 1, the 334-acre tract of forestland bordering the scenic section of the Rogue River is one of 24 Common School Fund tracts totaling some 4,920 acres that the state is considering selling or exchanging in Josephine and Jackson counties.
    "Our concerns about this parcel include the possible impact to the river, the fisheries, tourism and the economy of Galice and Southern Oregon," said Shannon Wilson, 45, a 1984 graduate of Illinois Valley High School who now is a co-director of Ecosystem Advocates Northwest, a nonprofit conservation group based in Eugene.
    "These lands were meant to be providing school funds in perpetuity — that's what they were meant to do when they were granted to the state in 1859," he added. "But it isn't just this parcel. There are parcels they are looking at in the Applegate River drainage, in the Illinois Valley, in the Shady Cove area — all over. And most people aren't even aware these lands in their backyards could be sold."
    In addition to raising awareness of potential environmental impacts from removing forests, which sequester carbon and provide habitat for wildlife, his group wants to ensure everything is above board and in the open, he said.
    "We are also concerned special interests could use this process to acquire some of these lands," he said. "We want to make sure it is a very transparent process."
    Julie Curtis, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of State Lands, the administrative arm of the State Land Board, which ultimately will decide the fate of the parcels, cautions that no decision on selling or exchanging the land will be made this year.
    "They haven't decided to sell or exchange any state property in either of the counties yet," she said. "The only action that has been taken is authorizing a review of the 24 parcels. And there's a long process to go through before we reach the recommendation stage to the board. We have to review each potential location, determine the value, the environmental constraints."
    As part of the analysis of each site, the Oregon Department of Agriculture will survey 14 parcels this year, including 13 this spring and the other in August when various plants are in bloom, she said. The Oregon Biodiversity Information Center at Portland State University has been recruited to survey the other four parcels for endangered or rare species, she said, adding the center already has conducted a "desk survey" of all the sites.
    "Once we get all the research done and do an analysis, it will be the end of the year or the beginning of 2012 before we take it to the State Land Board," she said.
    The three-member board, which includes the governor, secretary of state and state treasurer, will be responsible for making the final decision, she said.
    "We may not do anything with the land down there," she said. "But if we do sell any, (the money) would be deposited into the Common School Fund."
    Because of the depressed economy, coupled with poor timber prices and a relatively stagnant real-estate market, there may not be much interest if the state decides to sell the parcels, officials noted.
    Ever since Congress granted nearly 3.4 million acres of land to the newly minted Oregon in 1859 to fund schools, deeding over the 16th and 36th sections of each 36-square-mile township, state officials have been wrestling with how to best manage the lands. The original plan was to pay for public schools through the sale of timber and grazing fees on the state-owned land.
    Given Oregon's cash-strapped but land-rich status, state officials decided to sell or trade off all but 780,000 acres over the past 150 years, roughly 25 percent of the original land. Those lands were sold, in part, because it was felt private ownership would yield more for schools through property taxes and other economic benefits, Curtis explained.
    "We sold a lot of state lands at the turn of the (20th) century and, over the past decade, have been a little more active in managing our real estate portfolio by investing in lands with a high economic potential or divesting lands whose economic potential has been poor," she said.
    Last year, State Lands sent $50.5 million in revenue from its lands to 197 public school districts, including $1.1 million to the Medford School District, enough to pay for the equivalent of 13.5 full-time teachers. The Portland School District received the lion's share of $4.5 million, reflecting the salaries of 54 teachers.
    While the lands have provided hundreds of millions of dollars to the Common School Fund since 1859, the cost of schools has ballooned well beyond revenue coming from the state lands, officials said. The department has the authority to place revenue from land sales in a land bank, which houses short-term investments while replacement lands are being considered.
    In 2006, the department's asset-management plan called for the state to get rid of forestland and rangeland that was not producing enough money for the school fund or was difficult to manage, given its location. The department came up with about 12,000 acres of isolated and scattered forest parcels in Western Oregon and another 12,000 acres of rangeland east of the Cascade Range.
    The 24 parcels in Jackson and Josephine counties were not specifically identified for disposal through the 2006 plan but were proposed because of characteristics such as poor soils, isolated location, small size and length of time until the next potential timber harvest, according to a summary of the proposal released by the department in December.
    Two of the parcels, including the 334-acre Galice No. 1 tract and the 640-acre Woodcock Creek site in the Illinois Valley, have been recommended to be sold for land conservation, the summary noted. The Galice parcel is heavily forested with mature fir, incense cedar, madrone and live oak; the Woodcock site is adjacent to sensitive plant communities on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property.
    Gov. John Kitzhaber, the head of the board, is supportive of disposing of state-owned parcels that are not generating revenues at a reasonable cost, said Christine Miles, the governor's spokeswoman. Yet he wants to make sure that parcels with special conservation features be preserved by agencies or nature conservancy organizations, she added.
    "He supports that very strongly," she said. "He prefers they stay with agencies or organizations like that so they can be preserved."
    Any of the lands that have unique environmental values should be preserved, agreed Darren Borgias, southwest Oregon program manager for The Nature Conservancy, which works to preserve environmentally sensitive areas.
    "They are on the right track in identifying lands with conservation values," Borgias said. "We believe those lands should stay in public ownership."
    The group has been closely following the process as it develops, and already has made its views known to the state, he said, noting it can expect additional comments.
    "We will continue to look at the information as it comes up," he said.
    While there is no official comment period during the process, the department notifies all adjacent property owners of the potential action, Curtis said, adding that more than 100 comments already have been received concerning the proposed action from individuals and conservation groups.
    "We do invite the public to let us know what they think about this," she said, noting any sale would be done by public auction. "We would also seek out conservation organizations (for the parcels recommended for land conservation).
    "There is a lot of research going on before any decision is made, and we look at a lot of different avenues," she added. "What we do is for the very long term. This is not a short-term strategy."
    Keeping an eye on the process is Phil Long, superintendent of Medford schools.
    "As far as revenue stream, it would slightly increase the amount of resources available across the state to fund K-12 education," Long said of the land being sold. "It would be one-time money. For one time, it would augment the other money we receive. The question is: If that fund increases, will they decrease state contributions because they can balance out that way?"
    Property taxes within the district brought in about $28.5 million this year, he noted.
    "The common school fund is one local revenue funding stream for school districts," he said. "The state looks at our federal forest fees and our common school fund and our property taxes. It is always a good thing when more resources come in to provide services. But whether there is a direct correlation between this and slight increase in per-pupil funding, we don't know yet what that would be."
    Back in Galice, Shannon Wilson, a former millworker who has an associate's degree in forestry from Rogue Community College, indicated his group intends to watch the process as it develops. When he hiked through the Galice Parcel No. 1 last week, he found old-growth timber and saw one bald eagle.
    "I don't know why the state would consider risking one of the biggest economic assets of Southern Oregon for the short-term gain of selling this property," he said. "There are probably tens of thousands of people who come down here during the summer. Whether they sell it off to a timber corporation or a private individual, it is no longer supporting the schools, not to mention the potential ecological impact to the area."
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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