The proposed Skyline Forest project is still alive.
Last February, Whitefish Cascade Forest Resources, a Singapore-based investment company, bought 197,000 acres of Oregon forestland for a reported $855 million. Included in the deal were 33,000 acres just northwest of Bend’s Shevlin Park, the former Bull Springs Tree Farm, which for the past 12 years has been targeted by the Deschutes Land Trust as a community forest.
The deal came as a shock for many local recreationalists who had salivated at the thought of 51.5 square miles of trails and outdoor space — an area roughly four times larger than the lower Phil’s Trail complex — just minutes from Bend.
Since 2006, the land trust had worked with the forest’s previous owner, Fidelity National Financial, coming close to purchasing the property, which could conceivably connect Bend and Sisters via singletrack.
Over the past eight months, though, the land trust has been in contact with Whitefish Cascade, which has a local office in Sunriver, setting itself up as a potential buyer if — or when — the land comes up for sale in the future.
Whitefish Cascade officials did not return calls for comment.
“We’re in dialogue with the new owners,” said Brad Chalfant, executive director for the Deschutes Land Trust. “It’s going to take them some time to really get a feel for what they’ve got out there.”
According to Chalfant, the land trust may actually be in a better position than it was several years ago to buy the property.
“The reality is that these timberlands on the east side (of the Cascades), they’re not real high revenue producers,” Chalfant said about the ponderosa pine grown on the proposed Skyline Forest site. “They don’t generate a cash flow at any great rate, especially with the lack of mill infrastructure and the cost of hauling.
“Frankly, the drying of our forests make these relatively low-production and low-value forests from a commercial perspective,” he added. “As (Whitefish Cascade) comes to terms with that, we think it’s very likely they’ll look to get out of these properties.”
In addition to the forest’s declining revenue, the very real threat of wildfires could make the property harder to develop. The majority of the 6,134-acre Rooster Rock Fire in 2010 and almost all of last summer’s 6,908-acre Two Bulls Fire occurred in the proposed Skyline Forest. “
The recent fires make it much more difficult to develop a property like this,” said Chalfant, one of the land trust’s original founders in 1995. “But that’s not to say it couldn’t be broken up into a handful of properties. And once Humpty Dumpty is broken, it’s awfully hard to put back together.”
Paul Dewey of Central Oregon LandWatch said his biggest fear is that as Bend grows, the temptation for Whitefish Cascade to build homes on the property will become too great.
“As Bend starts to expand, there’s a tremendous push for growth,” Dewey said. “Our fear all along is that the area might be developed.”
Dewey said it’s not unreasonable to believe the new owners are looking at the property primarily for its timber production.
“If that timber is allowed to grow, it very well could be a long-term investment,” he said. “The real danger is fragmentation. If that 30,000 acres are parceled out, it becomes so fragmented it’s no longer functional (in terms of winter migration for animals). On top of that, there’d be the scenic and recreation problems. Once fragmented with different owners, the public won’t have the same access they have today.”
In the meantime, the property that spans across almost twice as much land as the city of Bend is open for public use. Motorized access is restricted to existing roads, and between Dec. 1 and April 30 cars are banned on portions of the forest inside the Tumalo Deer Winter Range, but mountain bikers and trail runners are allowed on the property’s gravel road and singletrack trails that survived the Two Bulls Fire.
“Our whole approach from the beginning has been to figure out a way to preserve and protect the property,” said Chalfant, whose organization leads hikes and bike rides on the property. “The whole community forest concept where we owned it was the approach we took before when the property was coming up for sale. If the landowner wants to do that, we’ll do that.”
In the community forest model, timber properties are owned by local communities under community forest authorities that have the power to issue bonds for forest purchases. (Typically bonds issued by CFAs are paid back with timber sales.) Deschutes County in 2005 created its own community forest authority in the hope of purchasing the Skyline Forest land.
“We’re still in the early stages of getting to know them, and they’re getting to know us,” he added. “I don’t think we’ll see anything dramatic soon. The good news is this winter we expect them to be out there planting seedings and not houses.”