Central Oregon’s Rooster Rock Fire and the Conservation of the Skyline Forest

Erik Kancler

During the 2009 Legislative session, Central Oregon LandWatch helped broker a significant piece of legislation creating a unique opportunity to permanently protect over 66,000 acres of working forests in the Eastern Cascades. In exchange, the landowner – Fidelity National Timber – could site a modest development on 1,200 acres of their land in the Skyline Forest area south of Sisters.

Should Fidelity opt to pull the trigger (the legislation created an opportunity, not a mandate) it would lead to the creation of Oregon’s first-ever Community Forest and could establish a successful precedent for forest protection via similar deals elsewhere in the state.

Last week, the 6,134-acre "Rooster Rock" fire roared through the heart of Skyline Forest, burning small portions of the proposed development area, and leading many to question whether or not the deal was ill-conceived, given that it could lead to as many as 282 homes in an area that the fire ultimately surrounded on three sides. Because LandWatch spent the better part of a decade successfully working to block the partitioning and development of the area before brokering the compromise, we’ve been asked directly whether or not we’re having second thoughts.

The short answer is no – this fire hasn’t changed how we feel about the deal, and hasn't changed anything on the ground that should affect its terms. The Skyline Forest area has a history of forest fires, and we knew that this area would burn eventually. In fact, that’s exactly why we worked as we did to broker a deal of this nature.

An intact Skyline Forest offers a source of timber, spectacular views, abundant recreation, prime winter habitat for deer and elk, and an opportunity to effectively manage fire risk throughout a very large area. A heavily partitioned and developed Skyline Forest offers none of these things and would repeatedly and unnecessarily put hundreds, perhaps thousands of firefighters in harms way to protect scattered residential development.

Some environmentalists may feel that the deal is at the outer limits of acceptability, or perhaps even beyond those limits. After all, it does allow the development of up to 282 units in an area that the Rooster Rock fire largely surrounded. That’s the type of scenario that most reasonable people would work to avoid and should be willing to accept only so long as something considerable were gained in the process.

In this case, what would be gained would be the full protection of more than 100 square miles of fire-prone forests that have been subject to intense land speculation. For anyone interesting in seeing those forests conserved and future risks averted, a clustering of development rights such as has been defined for Skyline - which offers the opportunity to proactively manage the surrounding forests to minimize future risks - should be a reasonable pill to swallow.

We believe this pill is just as worth swallowing today as it was before the fire began and this opportunity represents a smart solution to the larger goal of conserving the Skyline Forest.

This fire should serve to remind all of us, however, that as a matter of general policy, our first priority should be to find new and creative ways of ensuring that Oregon’s forests remain intact and transferring development rights out of forest zones. The Skyline Forest deal is a sensible means of addressing a real threat during a window of opportunity. It’s certainly not optimal. We hope that in the future, additional tools are created to provide solutions that make even more sense for protecting Oregon’s forests.

Central Oregon LandWatchErik Kancler is the executive director of Central Oregon LandWatch, a Bend-based nonprofit land use advocacy group.

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