County defends Pipe Fork negotiations

Lovers of Pipe Fork Creek, the 320-acre county forestland that has been the focus of a four-year effort by the Williams community to get it sold to a conservation organization, turned out at Anne G. Basker Auditorium in Grants Pass Jan. 10 to encourage the Josephine County Board of Commissioners to finalize the sale of the property.
In January 2023, the commissioners signed a letter of intent to sell Pipe Fork to The Conservation Fund, which offered the Yellow Book Appraisal price of $2,020,000 Sept. 9, 2023. However, since the county’s own appraisal found the timber on the land could be $700,000 more than the Yellow Book Appraisal, the commissioners have been hesitant to accept the offer, leaving the activists who have been pushing for the deal fearful that it will not come to fruition.
A Williams resident named Sandy read a letter to the editor that appeared in a recent Daily Courier edition, which claimed the Williams community felt “slapped down” by comments Commissioner Herman Baertschiger made earlier this month saying Pipe Fork proponents need to “put some skin in the game” to get the land preserved.
This comment “shows your misunderstanding of the amount of energy that has been put into this project by many people,” the letter retorts. “There has been really countless hours of skin time that has been spent on contacting Congressional aides, senators, state representatives, numerous meetings with you, the county commissioners, communicating with the Bureau of Land Management, letter writing campaigns. We’ve been very hard at work to procure the funds that we need to purchase the Pipe Fork.”
Williams resident David Levine called the “skin in the game” comment “offensive,” elaborating, “This is a county with a median household income of approximately $56,000. The starting county commissioner salary is $92,000 a year of taxpayer-supported money… To ask the Williams community to step up and dip into our own pockets for this feels a little bit disrespectful and inappropriate.”
Grants Pass teacher Michelle Kipe spoke to the sentimental value Pipe Fork holds to the locals who visit it regularly: “We must preserve this rare, precious resource for future generations.

I’ve walked this beautiful land and it is a living classroom for our children to experience the beauty and the power, the web of life, and also to experience the power of community to come together to do something for our children, to stand up for life for their future and in our small community. So it really is a living school that we must preserve.”

Commissioner candidate Mark Jones suggested the matter of whether the county should sell to The Conservation Fund be put on the May ballot for voters to decide.

Williams Fire Chief Rick Vetter also advocated for Pipe Fork’s sale to The Conservation Fund, saying, “We’re spending thousands and thousands of dollars trying to do fuel reduction and my area is really bad. The state has given us lots of money to clean up. We have a group that’s willing to buy this land and maintain it and maybe protect, you know, the community of Williams from wildfires. So that’s a value there – the cost of cleaning up that county land.”

Responding to the Pipe Fork supporters, Commissioner Dan DeYoung affirmed, “I’m still a proponent of your proposal for that land; I have been from the very beginning.”

He went on to address the political implications of the Pipe Fork matter: “Is it political? Yeah, there’s an awful lot of people in Pipe Fork. There’s a lot of people in Williams that are a voting bloc. You’re very communicating amongst each other and at some point in time, not having anything to do with timber, not having anything to do with the ditch, not having anything to do with trails or whatever, but this Board of Commissioners or a succeeding Board of Commissioners is going to go to the voter for something that Josephine County needs. And that’s when the people speak, is when that ballot comes there and they go, ‘Have we been treated right or have we been dissed?’ And it’s just as simple as that.”

Baertschiger pushed back on the notion that he slapped the people of Williams down: “I’m a little bit taken by somebody referring to I slap people down. That’s just something somebody wrote in a newspaper that nobody reads or very few people read. I don’t slap anybody down. I’ve never done that. I have debates and I talk about the issues.”

He also defended his stance that Pipe Fork is worth more than The Conservation Fund offered, pointing to the growth rate of new trees adding “hundreds of thousands” of dollars of value to the land every year.

“And why is that important to me?” Baertschiger went on. “I’ll tell you why it’s important – because that money is what I have to fund departments in this county like our juvenile justice system… Those kids have had a rough start in this life and we have a program to help them get their feet on the ground at a young age and head them in the right direction. You don’t think that’s important? Nobody’s talked about that. We don’t have any other funds that forestry dollars are tied to some of these programs and if the forestry dollars go away, the programs go away. Simple as that.”

Commissioner Baertschiger also speculated that clear cutting would not be the method used to harvest trees from Pipe Fork. “The county doesn’t clear cut that much anymore,” he said. “Clearcutting is a prescription that is used for timber with an evenly aged stand… That’s not an evenly aged stand out there, so I would doubt that would be the prescription.”

Board Chair John West also defended the county’s handling of Pipe Fork: “This board in four years has not sold it to anyone else. They have continued to work with the folks of Williams to try to come up with agreement and I think that shows this board’s commitment to the people of Williams because this board could have instructed the forestry department to log it. They could have put this property up for sale to the highest bidder and either taken that highest bid or rejected that highest bid but this board didn’t do that.”

With no indication of what they planned to do next as it pertains to Pipe Fork, the commissioners moved on in their agenda to appointments to various committees. Jamie Harrington was appointed to a four-year term on the JoCo Special Transit Advisory Committee; Justin Lyons was appointed to a four-year term on the JoCo Housing and Community Development Council; and Todd Greer was appointed to a three-year term on the Collaborative Economic Development Committee.

The board concluded their meeting with a brief discussion of what Baertschiger called a “very, very scary” upward trend in drug overdoses in Josephine County. He recited some stats he recently compiled: There were 11 overdose deaths in the city of Grants Pass and 96 Narcan administrations in 2022, and this increased to 15 deaths and 197 doses of Narcan in 2023.

Baertschiger went on to deliver an impassioned appeal to treat the matter of overdoses with more gravity than he feels it’s been regarded with so far:

“I know we filled this room many times with many different issues and I’m not trying to diminish the importance of those issues, but those important issues, nobody’s dying.
This issue of drug overdose has hundreds and thousands of people dying in Oregon. Why don’t we fill the room with that? Where is the public outcry? Our citizens are dying of drug overdoses and nobody cares. Are these other issues so important that they take all the oxygen out of the room and doesn’t leave any for the drug overdoses? You know, every one of those persons that die of a drug overdose in Oregon is somebody’s child. Go have a conversation with those parents and tell me what’s important.”