Nature lovers in Josephine County are on the cusp of a significant victory as the JoCo Commissioners are in talks to sell a beloved tract of forest to a conservation organization rather than a logging company.
The county’s plan to sell Pipe Fork Creek, a 320-acre property in the Williams area that is said to be an area of unique biodiversity and hosts a vital watershed, prompted a passionate flurry of backlash in 2020 and 2021. Then-Commissioner Darin Fowler and Commissioner Dan DeYoung changed their stances to show solidarity with the people of Williams who decried the prospect of a favorite local wilderness area being logged.
Current Board Chair Herman Baertschiger, however, ardently opposed delaying the planned auction, saying, “”I don’t think that we are looking at the best interests of all the constituents in Josephine County (if we delay the sale) … We are responsible for not only the taxpayers’ dollar but also all the assets of the county. And we have to look for the highest and best use of those assets.”
Just shy of two years since those remarks, the county deliberated sending a letter of intent to sell Pipe Fork to The Conservation Fund at their Jan. 25 weekly business session, held at Anne G. Basker Auditorium in Grants Pass.
The letter was addressed to The Conservation Fund’s Working Forest Fund Columbia Gorge Program Manager Kaola Swanson.
In the letter, the county spelled out its intent to do the following: 1) sell the property to The Conservation Fund, a Maryland nonstock corporation, if the offer meets the county’s financial expectations for both land and timber inventory values;
2) retain discretion to obtain, at the county’s expense, an independent commercial appraisal of the property and to include said appraisal as a factor in the sale price;
3) reserve the right not to cover any of the costs and expenses associated with this transaction. The commitment of staff time and other county resources will be solely at the county’s discretion;
4) assist in due diligence to support funding applications and conveyance of the property to TCF if an acceptable offer is received by the county;
5) give permission to enter county lands to assess and appraise the land and timber.
The letter states, “Provided the county and TCF are mutually satisfied, the county will sell the property to TCF via a deed by May 25, 2023.”
In addition, “The county will not offer the property for sale, nor offer for harvest any timber growing on the property while the sale process described by this letter is transpiring.”
Cheryl Bruner, who has actively supported a sale of Pipe Fork to a conservation organization, expressed appreciation to the board for their letter of intent. She used her time during public testimony to recount the saga of the Williams community mobilizing to protect Pipe Fork, starting with hikers discovering trees were being marked for clearcut in early 2020.
DeYoung met over 200 concerned citizens during the summer of 2020, and Fowler toured Pipe Fork that summer as well, Bruner recounted.
“We are so excited this is happening, that you are willing to negotiate with The Conservation Fund,” said Bruner.
She used her remaining time to detail the mission and achievements of TCF, stating, “They have worked in all 50 states since 1985 to protect more than 8.5 million acres of land.”
Bruner’s closing remark was, “We are eager to see this come to fruition.”
Avid hiker Linda Pace called it a “golden opportunity for the county to have this land protected for the public benefit and the cost paid by someone else”.
When the time came to make a motion in approval of sending the letter of intent, Baertschiger entertained an amendment to change “the county will sell the property to TCF via a deed by May 25, 2023” to “the county will sell the property to TCF via a deed within 120 business days,” heeding a suggestion by Pace to maximize the amount of time TCF has to negotiate and put together a satisfactory offer.
Baertschiger voted to approve; Commissioner John West voted to approve; and DeYoung was absent. The letter of intent was approved 2-0.
This does not guarantee TCF will acquire the land, as the letter is not legally binding.