Study: Cooper Spur land swap is good deal for taxpayers


News staff writer

December 6, 2006

ECONorthwest has attached a $11-16 million price tag to the economic value of protecting clean water, old growth forest and backcountry recreation through a proposed land exchange on Mount Hood.

The Cooper Spur Wild and Free Coalition, made up of 15 conservation groups, commissioned the report to support the trade incorporated in two federal bills.

The requested deal between Mt. Hood Meadows Oregon LLC and the U.S. Forest Service now factors in only the appraised values of the two properties. The CPWFC is hopeful the results of the new study will dispel the controversy that has arisen in recent months over the methodology behind the assigned values.

“Generally speaking, it is far more difficult to determine the value of the services a forest provides when it is protected from logging and development, than the value of the goods it provides when logged or otherwise developed,” wrote consultant Ernie Niemi in the report.

“The reason is because most forest-related services are less easily traded in markets and, hence, their values are not measured by market prices. This difference, however, does not mean that the services the intact and protected forest provides are necessarily less valuable. Instead, it means only that society interacts with and derives value from these forests in a variety of ways.”

Niemi based his economic assessment on three direct benefits from added resource protection:

* The forest’s collection, purification and regulation of water.

* The increased number of recreational opportunities, including those with Roadless/Wilderness characteristics.

The storage of carbon in the forest, about 268 U.S. tons per acre.

Niemi concluded that recreation had extra value — $29.97 per person per day — than similar activities on lands that lacked these pristine qualities. He also assigned a “social benefit” of carbon emitted into the atmosphere from the Cooper Spur area at $3,400-6,000 annually per acre. The economic advantage of water purification was calculated by Niemi at a yearly cost of $100-200,000.

To support his tabulations, Niemi cited the results of a nationwide public survey that placed an added value on protecting old-growth and spotted owl habitat at $632,000-1.3 million per acre.

CPWFC is submitting the results of the ECONorthwest report to Oregon’s Congressional delegation for review during consideration of the land trade. The majority of the state’s conservation community joins Congressmen Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., in the belief that more is at stake than just an exchange of properties.

The two officials contend that taxpayers will save millions in the costs of infrastructure since Meadows will not be developing its Cooper Spur holdings.

In addition, CPWFC believes that hard-to-measure environmental values should also be assigned to the trade, including protection of the migration corridor for deer and elk, along with spotted owl habitat. The Crystal Springs Watershed, which provides 25 percent of the drinking water for Hood River County, would forever be protected by legislative approval of the deal.

“This study provides additional evidence of a fair and equitable land trade between Mt. Hood Meadows and the U.S. Forest Service that will benefit taxpayers immediately and in the long run,” said Russ Pascoe, CPWFC chair.

At issue is the debate about the land valuations assigned by Steve Hall of Montana. The certified appraiser hired by Meadows was on the Forest Service approved list and was only brought onboard after meeting the scrutiny of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee, a member of CPWFC.

However, Mike Ash, former deputy regional forester for Oregon and Washington, challenged the validity of the figures given by Hall. The former Forest Service administrator contended that the 120-acre Government Camp parcels sought by Meadows would be worth five times the amount listed by Hall on the open market. Ash argued that restricting the land exchange to one private party did not serve the public as well as a competitive process.

The disputed matter was then turned over to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which found fault with the values based on a desk review. Officials disagreed with Hall prescribing a 10 percent annual land appreciation rate for the Clackamas County land that was already zoned for the intended use and closer to Portland.

Hall granted the 769-acre Cooper Spur properties owned by Meadows an 18 percent appreciation rate even though much of the land needed to be rezoned for development — the subject of a long-running dispute between the company and the HRVRC.

According to Hall’s final report, Meadows is actually paying more at $31,750 per acre than two smaller pieces of land zoned for the same purpose at Government Camp. He estimated the value of that property at $3.8 million and the Cooper Spur ski area and adjoining resort facilities at $5.5 million.

The trade has been included in a House bill adding 77,000 acres of Wilderness on Mount Hood that was co-sponsored by Walden and Blumenauer. It is also incorporated in a Senate bill proposed by Republican Gordon Smith and Democrat Ron Wyden that seeks to expand Wilderness by 128,000 acres.

“We believe it is important to ensure equal value in the appraisal process but we must acknowledge that there’s greater public value being realized in the trade. The historic agreement offers land of equal value, and while an auction may obtain hard dollars it would not yield protection for the unique and high-elevation forests at Cooper Spur,” said Robert Smith of the Mazamas, also a member of CSWFC.

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