Classifying forest land

Classifying forest land

28 January 2010

published by

USA — Once again Wallowa County is a leader in natural resource work.

In the early 2000s it was determined that private grazing and timber lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry’s fire division were 40 years behind in their classifications. The Wallowa County Forest Land Classification Committee was formed and broke new ground, making way for the rest of the state to do similar work.

After nearly six years, Wallowa County maps have been updated to properly address fire protection on private land. Timber and grazing lands are assessed at separate rates, and agricultural land is not charged.

“We want to make the assessment equitable for all land owners involved,” Mike Shaw of the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Wallowa Unit said. “The big issue is it hasn’t been done in over 40 years. If we had been doing this every two or three years this wouldn’t be a big issue.”

While assessment rates have continued to rise, proper designation had not caught up. Commissioner Mike Hayward initiated the Classification Committee, which has created new boundaries to include all landowners affected and re-determine what land is covered by ODF fire suppression.

In 2004 a committee was convened to tackle fire assessment, and in 2005 the committee was legally formalized by Wallowa County. The learning curve was steep, and during the first two years the committee had to invent its process. It concentrated on mapping the areas concerned, Shaw said. Now, the work they have done has set a leading-edge, state-wide precedent.

John Williams, Wallowa County’s OSU Extension agent  and committee chair, said, “We were breaking new ground and didn’t have a road map so we started the process. We didn’t even know what questions to ask.”

Williams said firefighters, landowners and map technicians were involved. The committee had to take summers off during fire season, Williams said, another factor that slowed the process.

In 2007, when the committee had made good progress, the state asked Wallowa County to hold up for a year to let the rest of the state catch up, Williams said. They continued to meet but weren’t able to go forward with a plan. The state wanted to maintain consistency among the counties. Many counties are now using and adapting the policies and procedures Wallowa County developed.

In 2008 the classification was finished and the areas concerned were mapped using Geographic Information System. Four public meetings were held to ensure the process was “open and transparent,” Shaw said.

Shaw said the Northeast Oregon District of ODF contains roughly 1.6 million acres and has a budget of approximately $3.4 million. The budget stays the same despite how much acreage is protected. For land covered by ODF fire suppression, half of the cost comes from the assessment paid by landowners and the other half from ODF monies. If a fire grows beyond a manageable size, a state fire team is called in to manage it. When this occurs, Oregon Forest Land Protection funds are used.

Unfortunately, fire costs rise astronomically each year, Shaw said. Fire suppression for the district was high in 2005, 2006 and 2007. The past two years have had relatively low incidences of fire, largely due to high snowpack and rainy springs.

By March 1, landowners affected will receive a letter explaining the new assessment, Williams said. If there are any concerns, the hope is that landowners will come into the Oregon Department of Forestry office in Wallowa and look at the map to ensure accuracy. The assessment will appear alongside property taxes due in October’s statements.

The good news is that, Williams said, “Most of the assessments will only change a little bit.”

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