Counties want to develop public land

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

It's not the pristine view that Lewis and Clark observed nearly 200 years ago. Wind surfers zip across the wind-whipped river; barges haul goods to seaports and cars cruise down the freeway. Cities, dams and homes dot the landscape.

But the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area is still relatively undeveloped despite its closeness to Portland. In large part, that's because Congress created this 292,615-acre area in an attempt to freeze development and protect the view.

Since 1986, the Forest Service has spent $33 million to buy or acquire easements on 31,000 acres of land, slowing down the growth of hilltop developments and the loss of farmland and forests that lie along 83 miles of the Columbia River.

But the Forest Service's efforts are being increasingly challenged.

"There's been a lot of good things happening in the gorge, but right now, we are in danger of letting all that good work slip through our fingers," says Lauri Aunan, executive director of Friends of the Gorge, an environmental group. "There is extreme pressure being applied to give away private lands to developers or not buy any more land anywhere."

County fears a decreased tax base

Skamania County, Wash., which flew its flags at half-mast when the Columbia Gorge was protected by Congress in 1986, is leading the charge. It has called on the Forest Service to stop buying new land in the county and to seek land exchanges as an alternative.

The county's declaration goes on to instruct the Forest Service to inventory its lands in Skamania County and "determine which (public) lands can be returned to private productive lands that provide the county a reasonable tax source."

The Forest Service's response has been guarded.

"We're being silent on the whole matter," says Ed Medina, lands specialist for the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. "We do understand the county's dilemma, and we are trying to look at the potential for land exchanges. But as long as we're getting acquisition money and we have willing sellers, we are proceeding with acquisitions, whether it be in Skamania County or elsewhere."

Aunan's Friends of the Gorge fired off a letter registering opposition to the county's proposal. "We're saying, "Don't you dare," she says. "The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is of national importance. The Forest Service's public lands program for the gorge must be driven by resource protection, not the limited interests of a single county."

Chuck Cushman's property rights group originally fought the legislation that created the gorge as a scenic area - and lost - the only major battle his group has lost, he says. These days, politically powerful urbanites from Portland and Vancouver, Wash., tend to support Forest Service efforts to protect their playground away from the traffic and noise of the city.

Rural counties see it differently.

"The people from the city think everything outside of the urban areas should be saved and that we're not capable of managing growth," observes Al McKee, chairman of the Skamania County Commission. "We need more of a balanced perspective."

McKee says restrictions on property development in the gorge, combined with federal purchases of land and a dearth of buildable land, have left Skamania County with a shrinking tax base for basic services. Timber revenues from the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest have plummeted, too, he adds, largely due to spotted owl restrictions.

"We're really scrambling to keep our county running," he says.

The act creating the gorge scenic area did set aside $5 million in federal funds to develop Skamania County Lodge, a convention center and resort, but while unemployment in Skamania County dropped from more than 20 percent to about 6 percent, McKay says about 60 percent of the county's work force has to drive elsewhere to work. "I guess we're becoming kind of a bedroom community," he laments.

A looming issue in the gorge is that in a couple of years the Forest Service will be able to spend $40 million to buy private lands within the gorge, thanks to the full authorization provided for in the act. The gorge has received more funds than most areas in the nation for land acquisition because former Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., now retired, was a high-ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and supportive of land-preservation activities in the gorge.

With the changing political climate in Washington, D.C., Aunan is worried. "The only way this act stops development is through land acquisition," she says. "I can see a train wreck coming. We're on the road to counties running the show and gutting the act."

Bowen Blair, Northwest regional director for the Trust for Public Land, is more optimistic, perhaps because his group has spent $24 million to buy about 60 parcels covering some 16,000 acres of private land in the gorge. The nonprofit group holds onto the parcels until the Forest Service receives funding from Congress.

"We provide a brick-by-brick justification for purchasing the properties, and then we go back to Congress and explain what the benefits are for the public," Blair says. "We find that we can make a pretty powerful argument for land acquisition."

Medina says the Trust's partnership in the gorge has been enormously helpful. "There's all kinds of things they can do that we could never do," he says. "There are some landowners who say, "we have to sell our property immediately." And if the land is on our priority list, we suggest they work with the Trust. It may take several years for us to get funding to buy the land."

Because public reports on land sales in the gorge have revealed gaps between the price the government pays for land and what the Trust paid for the same land, charges have been made about "profiteering." Skamania County Prosecutor Brad Anderson pointed out one example in which the Trust received $275,000 from the government for a property deal, although the group paid $150,000 for the land.

"I thought that was a crime," Anderson says.

Blair acknowledged the price difference raises questions. But the Trust routinely seeks to make some money from land deals to finance its operations, he says. "I've been hearing about the charges of profiteering from Skamania County, but those people are philosophically opposed to us and the government buying land, so they're probably irritated how successful we've been."

If, in addition to selling, a landowner chooses to donate a percentage of a land deal to TPL, it provides tax benefits and an extra incentive to set aside lands for conservation purposes. Landowners can write off a donation to the group as a dollar-for-dollar charitable contribution, Blair says, and the reduced selling price shrinks the capital gains tax. That, Blair concludes, is a "win-win situation for everyone."