The first public meeting regarding the complex Blue Mountain Land Exchange was held Monday night, March 3 at the Senior Center in Wallowa. Thirty-three people attended the session which was presented by the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners. Subsequent meetings were held Tuesday at Imnaha during the daytime and at Cloverleaf Hall in Enterprise in the evening.
The purpose of the three public meetings was to help the county commissioners come up with public generated information to submit to the Forest Service as part of the federal agency's scoping process.
As anticipated, the portion of the exchange involving Wood Butte and Hawkins Pass, the portion involving hotel magnate Mark Hemstreet, drew the most discussion at Wallowa.
The Blue Mountain Land Exchange has been in the works since 1990 and involves seven counties and three national forest: the Wallowa-Whitman, Malheur and Umatilla.
Wallowa County has the largest stake in the exchange with a proposed 16,267 acres slated to go from private ownership to public ownership, and 6,993 acres to go from public ownership to private ownership. Because of low tax rates applied on timber/grazing lands the amount of tax shift involved, as estimated from figures taken from the Wallowa County assessor's office, is not great. Commission Chairman Mike Hayward suggested that the tax implications would result in a loss of $2,752 in taxes and an increase in the in-lieu of taxes category of $3,087 annually.
The goal of the land exchange, as presented by King Williams of the Clearwater Land Exchange, a third party facilitator in the process, is to reach a balance between private and public appraised values across the seven-county effort. Individual exchanges within the total picture can be balanced by cash transactions not to differ from 25 percent of the appraised value.
Though not started yet, the appraisal of the lands involved will be done by the Beaverton firm of the Healy Company which has a positive track record of assessing such land exchanges in the past, said Williams.
After introductory remarks by Hayward and Williams, those in attendance were divided into two groups to present concerns and input. John Williams and Bruce Dunn, representing the Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Council, recorded information and questions on flip charts, later relaying their findings to the reassembled group.
It was noted during discussions that the multiple parcels belonging to the Delbert Lewis Estate in the Imnaha area are for sale and not part of the exchange unless they are purchased, then included as part of the exchange. It was suggested that Hemstreet could purchase some of the Lewis properties, then exchange them for properties he wishes to acquire in the Powwatka area. It was estimated that he was interested in acquiring 1,700 acres near properties he already owns in the Powwatka area north of Wallowa.
Both groups talked in detail about the Hemstreet portion of the exchange. In return for desired properties near Powwatka he is willing to give up a 57 acre parcel at Hawkins Pass within the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, a parcel the Forest Service has long wished to acquire because of its landlocked location within its boundaries, and over 400 acres of land up Hurricane Creek.
Bud Phillips of Wallowa opposed the exchange as far as it involves Wood Butte in the Powwatka property. He and others argued that Wood Butte is far more accessible to the public than Hawkins Pass and should remain so. Area Forest Service Ranger Kendall Clark said that Hawkins Pass, because of snow, is accessible to hikers about two weeks out of the year. She quickly backed up that statement with a remark that the site is becoming more popular with winter recreationists.
Hayward anticipated that Tuesday's meeting at Imnaha would focus more heavily on the Lewis parcels. He did not know what focus the Enterprise meeting would have.
King Williams stated that the Clearwater Land Exchange has contacted no landowners about being part of the project. The initiative comes from the landowners. The Clearwater Land Exchange has been in existence since 1972 and has arranged three dozen land exchanges in the western states.
Clark admitted that the consolidation of Forest Service boundaries is a big concern of the federal agency.
King Williams said from previous track records that an estimated 80-plus percent of the proposed parcels in the exchange will be part of the final package. No new lands can now be added and there is no condemnation of land involved in the process.
The total exchange in Baker, Grant, Morrow, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa and Wheeler counties is proposed to include 36,453 acres being changed from private ownership into federal ownership and 20,568 acres from public ownership to private ownership. In only Morrow County is there a net gain in private ownership; 220 acres.
Written testimony is encouraged, especially before the end of April. Such testimony can be submitted to Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, c/o Linda Vore, Box 907, Baker City, Oregon 97814.