County Commissioners delay Pipe Fork again

The Board of Josephine County Commissioners convened Tuesday, June 18 at Anne G. Basker Auditorium in Grants Pass. Normally the board meets Wednesdays, but as Chair John West noted, June 19 is a Federal holiday honoring Juneteenth, the date in 1865 upon which approximately 250,000 African Americans, the last slaves in the nation, were informed of their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation by Union troops in Galveston Bay, Texas.
The issue that took up the bulk of the meeting was consideration of a sale agreement with The Conservation Fund for 320 acres of forestland in Williams commonly known as Pipe Fork.
As regular readers will know, the effort to get Pipe Fork sold has been years in the making, starting when the Williams community rallied to protect the popular recreation and ecological site over half a decade ago when rumors swirled that it was slated for logging.
About a year ago, Williams activists petitioned the Maryland-based nonprofit The Conservation Fund to purchase the property, with the expectation they would serve as a bridge buyer and soon after pass the property on to the Oregon Bureau of Land Management, where it would likely become part of a research area due to the presence of rare Port Orford cedar trees.
While the commissioners had signaled interest in accepting The Conservation Fund’s $2 million offer, aided by a $300,000 down payment from the Williams Community Forest Project, the board had concerns regarding the prospect that BLM could close the property to public access.
“What assurances have BLM made that this piece of property will be left open to the public and will not be logged?” Commissioner Herman Baertschiger asked The Conservation Fund representative Kayla Swanson.
Swanson invited The Conservation Fund attorney Rich Deitman to explain that BLM will be bound by restrictions set forth by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a separate entity under the purview of Oregon’s government which is providing the grant the nonprofit would use to acquire the land.

“We obviously can’t speak for BLM, but it’s our understanding and our involvement in the project is frankly driven by the fact that this property will be added to the natural research area of Pipe Fork,” Deitman added.

Swanson added, “It’s probably worth mentioning again that when you use funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase a property, public access is a criteria of the status of the property moving forward. So that combined with the natural research area status, we should have plenty of public access.”

“But you don’t have a guarantee from BLM,” Baertschiger rebutted. “These are assumptions.”

The commissioner then posed the question, “What would happen if BLM determined that it would be a detriment to the Port Orford Cedar trees to have people there because the Vytofer disease is spread by, you know, mud on your feet and stuff, and that they decide to close that whole drainage off to people?”

Swanson noted that such closures are typically temporary, prompting Baertschiger to reiterate that she was making assumptions and nothing has been put in writing.

When Deitman defended the strength of assurances The Conservation Fund had received from BLM regarding how the property would be managed going forward, Baertschiger countered, “You’re an attorney.You should know that if you don’t have a document in writing, there’s no guarantee.”

Commissioner Dan DeYoung was less skeptical of assumptions that were made about BLM’s intentions, saying, “I think that in the hands of Bureau of Land Management and the people of Williams, I’m confident that they are not interested in harming the forest or harming that area in any way. And so I’m going to be in favor of this move.”

“Maybe we need to invite the BLM to our meeting to have this conversation with them since they’re going to be the record owner of the property,” West proposed. He went on to say that he knows of a property that the BLM has closed to public access for 11 years due to the threat of spreading disease to Port Orford cedar, “so I guess our thought of short time and the government’s short time is totally different.”

West added, “To me, it’s very important that what was said for the purchase of this and why the taxpayers are taking a reduction in value that it is guaranteed to the public because there’s 88,000 people in Josephine County.”

When it became clear that both commissioners West and Baertschiger were leaning towards passing on the sale for the time being, Swanson reminded them that a further delay could jeopardize the entire acquisition: “When we were brought in only a year ago, we were told that this needed to be done very quickly. We’ve worked very hard to meet those timelines and we are still here today waiting on the county for your decision. I would strongly prefer that we could move forward with the sale to The Conservation Fund because in order to get the grant funding for the permanent conservation, we’ve already secured that. And the longer that we wait, the more at risk it would be.”

Public comment consisted of about a dozen citizens speaking about Pipe Fork, with about an even mix of proponents of the sale versus opponents. The opponents claimed the BLM could not be trusted to steward the property, while proponents said they were willing to accept the risk of the property being closed to the public if it meant the trees were protected from logging and the watershed preserved.

When it came time to vote, DeYoung made a motion to approve the sale contract, but neither of his colleagues seconded it, killing the motion and once again leaving the future of Pipe Fork uncertain.

The board’s weekly business session could not be delayed to the following Wednesday because the county’s final supplemental budget needed to be approved before the start of the 2024-2025 fiscal year next month.

“This supplemental was published in the I.V. News June 5 and represents some unexpected needs that have arisen since our last supplemental Jan. 24,” explained JoCo Finance Director Sandy Novak. She added that this is the third supplemental of the 2023-2024 fiscal year.
Among the expenditures Novak listed that necessitated the approval of a supplemental budget:

-Increased insurance costs for sheriff, patrol and jail as well as an increase to the cost of security around the courthouse.

-A transfer of $49,100 from Title 3 funds to Emergency Management, which are in Fund 16 to cover Firewise operations for the year.

-The Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Fund is moving $22,000 of material spending authority to the transfer authority to cover the cost of upfitting a sheriff vehicle.

-Community Corrections received an additional grant from Criminal Justice Commission and will be using the funds to bolster their current programs as well as transfer some of the funds to law enforcement in the reserve for future expense.

-The Recreation Department will use the last of their contingency funds to pay for higher than anticipated utility bills at the JoCo Fairgrounds.

-Transit has increased their fleet operations and maintenance fees with more vehicles as well as needing to transfer funds from their operating account to the equipment reserve.

-The Board of County Commissioners will use $15,000 in contingency in order to cover unbudgeted AOC dues paid.