CANYON CITY – A rebellion is simmering over the so-called Zone 1 lands, as rural landowners brace for an increase in a fire patrol assessment that’s unique to Grant County.
The landowners pay fire patrol assessments – in effect, taxes that are billed along with their other property taxes – to the Oregon Department of Forestry for protection of their private lands.
In Grant County alone, landowners are assessed not just for forest and range lands, but also for the less productive but still fire-susceptible lands classified as Zone 1.
This year, Grant County landowners paid per-acre rates of 169.45 cents for timber land, 76.51 cents for grazing land, and 30 cents for Zone 1. The Grant County Court is scheduled to hear from ODF officials March 4 on a proposed Zone 1 rate increase.
Area ranchers this month appealed to the Court to challenge any rate hike, but also to press ODF to take a more proactive approach to fire management.
Mark Webb, a Mt. Vernon area landowner and former county judge, told the Court last week the basis of the problem is that ODF will request an assessment increase to cover the cost of firefighting for those lands, but “we suggest the cost does not warrant it.”
Landowners say the Zone 1 money has in effect gone to offset firefighting costs elsewhere and to bolster the state agency’s budget – and that the situation amounts to a tax on Grant County landowners unlike anything elsewhere in the state.
The situation has deep roots, dating back to the 1940s when the state proposed the Zone 1 category to encourage protection for all lands, and safeguard the timber and range assets by adding protection for the more marginal adjacent private lands.
John Day rancher Ken Holliday notes Grant County likely signed on for the Zone 1 category because officials recognized the need to protect the rich timberlands within the county’s boundaries, a much more significant asset than in other nearby counties.
However, Grant was the only county to adopt the zone, he said. A few years later the state dropped the Zone 1 approach, but the special zone remained in place for a large swath of Grant County.
Zone 1 has covered as much as 499,000 acres in the county, that figure recorded in 1982. However, classification changes since then moved substantial acreage into the higher-revenue grazing bracket, reducing Zone 1 to the current 236,000 acres.
The zone was established by a 1944 memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the state and the county that also set the assessment at no more than 5 cents per acre. The agreement was considered renewed each year unless canceled by either party in advance.
Holliday said the county should consider that MOA still in effect.
Webb said the rate set by the MOA – 5 cents per acre – has been increased over the years at the request of ODF and with the consent of past county courts. He conceded that happened during his own tenure with the Court, noting he wasn’t aware at the time that the MOA limited the rate to a nickel.
However, the money isn’t the only issue for the local ranchers, who say the agency’s historic emphasis on fire suppression has fostered conditions that ensure large wildfires. They say ODF should take a different approach, as the federal agencies are doing, and embrace prescribing burning and other proactive means to prevent fires.
Webb and John Day rancher Allan Mullin pointed to air tanker drops during the 2013 fire season that didn’t stop the spread of blazes on their land but were costly. They also say some Zone 1 lands may be enhanced by fire, which burns out unwanted juniper and brush.
Webb said the Legislature allocated some $3 million to ODF to spend with the Forest Service on reducing fire risk to the federal forests, an amount that would double if the governor’s proposed budget for 2015-17 is approved.
The landowners question the push to raise their assessments when ODF has that amount of money available.
They asked the Court to stand firm on any Zone 1 increase, but also to have a say in how that money could be used to manage the lands for fire resilience.
The Court is in a position “to motivate” ODF to take a different approach, Webb said.
The state agency, he added, shouldn’t just assume it deserves an increase because it spent the money the prior year.
Holliday agreed, saying “When they build their budget each year, they don’t go for what they need, they go for what they want.”