County looks to sell its timberland in eastern Oregon

The Hood River County Forestry Department is about to set the wheels in motion for the sale of county-held timberland in Eastern Oregon, with the intent of purchasing more timberland in Hood River County.

County Forest Manager Doug Thiesies spoke at Monday night’s regular meeting of the Hood River County Board of Commissioners to give an update on where the Forestry Department was in the sale process, which he hoped would be completed by early next year.

“We have been moving real fast on that over the last several months,” Thiesies told commissioners of the sale.

The lands in question are two parcels located in the Eastern Oregon counties of Grant and Umatilla. The first parcel, called the Desolation Tract, is 13,652 acres and located in Grant County. The second parcel, called the Wilkins Tract, is 5,306 acres and is located in a portion of Umatilla.

Thiesies explained Tuesday morning that Hood River County had bought the timberland back in 2002 as part of a tripartite exchange with the U.S. Forest Service. According to Thiesies, the formation of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area in 1986 rendered a 1,016-acre swath of mature forestland on the west side of the county off-limits for harvesting and the county haggled with the federal government for years to get compensated for the loss. In the late-1990s, the feds capitulated and the Forest Service cut a check for $7.6 million to Hood River County, which the Forestry Department originally intended to use for the purchase of more lands within the county.

“They looked for opportunities here, but they just couldn’t find it,” Thiesies said. “It just wasn’t there.”

The county instead purchased the two eastern Oregon parcels from a private owner for $6.666 million in 2002 because it was “really kind of the only land available at the time,” according to Thiesies.

When asked about the current value of the timberland, Thiesies said he didn’t “want to go out on a limb,” and give a dollar amount.

“There’s a lot of variables,” he explained. “With timber, you’ve got variable market rates. In this case the timber we got was young; it was cut over.”

Still, Thiesies said the timberland was most likely worth more now than it was a decade ago.

“There wasn’t a lot you could cut (in 2002), but since then, it’s been growing,” he noted. “The value of our land has improved over there as well.”

County Administrator David Meriwether agreed and said that in general, the economy, including timber markets, has been slowly recovering from the financial collapse of 2008.

“Land values are coming up,” he said at the meeting. “Last year may not have been a good time to sell, but this year is better.”

Thiesies said it was rather unusual for a county in Oregon to own timberland so far from its borders and added that the sale of the land would cut down on administration costs. He also noted that administering the land has become more of a stretch due to cuts to County Forestry Department personnel over the years.

If the sale does go through, Thiesies said Hood River County wants to purchase more timberland, but this time, much closer to home.

“When we sell that land, the primary goal is to purchase land in Hood River County with the proceeds from that sale,” he said.

When asked about what tracts of Hood River County timberland the Forestry Department was interested in, Thiesies wouldn’t go into specifics, but said the state owns “a couple of tracts of land in the county we may be interested in.”

For now, the Forestry Department is primarily focused on the Eastern Oregon land sale and testing the waters for prospective buyers. Recently, the county sent out notices to landowners who have grazing leases on the properties to give them a heads-up on the possible sale and to see if they were interested in buying some of the land.

Thiesies said the Forestry Department will be looking at getting the land appraised in August or September, putting the land out to bid in November, and closing the sale in January.

“That would probably be the earliest that transaction could happen,” Thiesies said.

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