Wallowa County will give up 9,274 more acres of private land to the U.S. Forest Service in a huge land exchange that involves properties in sevens counties in Northeast Oregon.
Most of the Wallowa County lands are along the Imnaha River where the federal government wants to consolidate its holdings. They are currently owned by the estate of the late Delbert Lewis but will be deeded to the Forest Service if the Blue Mountain Land Exchange goes through as planned.
"It is an extraordinary piece of property," said Kendall Clark, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area project manager. The Lewis property straddles the Imnaha River for approximately 16 miles in what has been designated as a federally protected Wild and Scenic river corridor. "I like to think of this as his gift to the people who live here," Clark added.
Lewis was a Nebraska rancher and businessman who acquired thousands of acres of land along the Imnaha over the years, including the Lucky Diamond Ranch, which he purchased in 1990. He passed away Nov. 28 at the age of 82.
The Lewis property is by far the largest Wallowa County holding involved in the Blue Mountain Land Exchange but it is not the only one. Other private land owners who are acquiring or releasing property include hotel magnate Mark Hemstreet, R-Y Timber, Water Canyon Ranch, Bennett Lumber Company, Lee Belnap, and the Lathrop family. All told, 16,267 acres of private land in the county will be transferred to the federal government. In exchange, private landowners will acquire 6,993 acres of land in the county currently under federal ownership.
The net loss of private lands will likely mean a reduction in the local tax base, an issue that concerns county officials because it will shift the burden of paying for government services to remaining property owners.
"That is an issue with this exchange, there is no doubt about it," said Wallowa Valley District Ranger Meg Mitchell. Of the seven counties involved in the exchange, Wallowa County is slated to give up the most private land.
The extent of that shift is not yet known and depends upon the number of acres finally included in the deal and the value of those acres. Most are agricultural lands. The net loss of tax base will be revealed later this year when the government prepares an economic analysis of the proposal.
Wallowa County residents will get their first detailed look at the plan when the Forest Service conducts a series of "scoping" meetings to gather public input about the exchange. The agency will then produce an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which will also be subject to review by the public before a final decision and order are made.
"The point I want to make is the public process is just beginning," said Mitchell, who noted that the land exchange has now been in the works for more than four years. There was some confusion about the timeline recently, according to Mitchell, as a result of a legal notice published in the newspaper notifying persons with claims to the affected parcels that they had 45 days to contact the Forest Service. That deadline is Jan. 3, and applies to people with a legal interest in the properties, for example, those who have a lien or a mining claim. There is plenty of time left for public comments about the broader issues of the exchange, Mitchell assured.
Mitchell met on Friday with Wallowa area residents to address concerns they raised about a quarter-acre parcel in the Powwatka Ridge area that the Forest Service intends to turn over to Shilo Inn owner Mark Hemstreet, who in turn plans to deed 57 acres near Hawkins Pass in the Eagle Cap Wilderness to the government.
The citizen group opposing that part of the exchange, led by Bud Phillips, have argued that Wood Butte, the historic site of a former Forest Service lookout tower, should be dropped from the deal because of public interest in preserving public access to the property and its panoramic view of the Wallowa Valley.
"Is the quarter-acre piece at Wood Butte worth posting our flag and saying, 'By God this is ours,' at the risk of losing everything else worth it?" Mitchell said. "If people want it out, they need to tell us why and what they think we ought to do with it."
The Forest Service tried to remove Wood Butte from the exchange by acquiring some of Hemstreet's surrounding property in the trade but Hemstreet balked.
The intent of the land exchange, from the Forest Service's perspective, is to streamline management of its holdings. This is accomplished through consolidation and eliminating "inholdings" - pockets of private land surrounded by national forest land.
"It is expensive to maintain fragmented boundaries," Clark explained. "The surveys are more involved, fencing is more involved. It complicates a lot of our efforts." That can pose a risk to landowners, both public and private, she said in the case of fighting wildfire, which is the responsibility of the Forest Service on national forest land and the responsibility of the Oregon Department of Forestry on private lands. Figuring out ownership in the heat of a wildfire can hamper efficient fire fighting, she said.
Intermingled boundaries can also prove frustrating to hunters and fishermen, who sometimes stray onto private land when they think they are on public land.
A strong motivating factor for private landowners can be unloading liability associated with protection of endangered species. Especially along riparian areas the presence of endangered species can be a management headache for landowners, who are faced with writing management plans, installing extra fencing, and monitoring water quality, among other things.
Mitchell predicted that the Blue Mountain exchange will be the last major exchange in Wallowa County for many years to come.
"I don't know how many more exchanges we have in us," she said. "The time and process that it takes to do a land exchanges is huge."
For more information about the Blue Mountain Land Exchange the Forest Service has established a Web site which contains maps and other details. It is located at www. fs.fed.us/r6/w-w/planning.htm