The Task Force
Membership: Ken Brooks, rancher; Gail Enright, rancher; Sue Horn, Mt. Vernon mayor; Sharon Mogg, Chamber of Commerce executive director; Sue Newstetter, the county’s Title III coordinator; Shaun Robertson, natural resources consultant; Jeff Thomas, Grant County Farm Bureau president; Mark Webb, former county judge and neighboring property owner.
The panel pens a draft for talks with State Parks
By Scotta Callister
Blue Mountain Eagle
CANYON CITY – The Oregon State Parks Department would have to make up for lost property tax revenue, make use of hayfields, maintain water rights and meet a slate of other commitments under a draft agreement unveiled last week by Grant County’s task force on the proposal for a new park at the Grouse Mountain Ranch.
The State Parks and Recreation Commission, meeting this Wednesday in Salem, is expected to move ahead with acquiring the 6,300-acre ranch, now owned by George and Priscilla Meredith.
The commission gave preliminary approval to the deal last November, but delayed final action to allow time to address concerns raised by the county, ranchers, and the governor’s office. The Grant County Court in December formed a task force to hammer out a proposal for the intergovernmental agreement, intended to protect the county’s interests if a new state park is created on the land north of Mt. Vernon.
The task force wrapped up its work last week, presenting the proposed agreement to the Court at its Jan. 29 meeting. County Judge Scott Myers agreed to forward the document to the state parks and begin any negotiations over the terms as soon as possible.
Key points proposed by the task force call for OPRD to:
• Pay the equivalent of property taxes and special assessments, as determined by the county assessor.
• Establish a park development and operations fund, and commit money to that work each year, with the amount rising from $50,000 in the first year to $200,000 in Year 7 and beyond.
• Provide fire coverage and planning, with access through gates provided to fire agencies and annual meetings to work on plans with fire agencies and neighbors.
• Provide for hay harvest on applicable lands, and work with local agencies and ranching groups on grazing opportunities, grass banking and other management plans.
• Develop weed control plans.
• Use water rights on Beech Creek and develop water sharing plans with other right-holders in the Beech Creek watershed.
• Make plans for wildlife management, including hunting, in coordination with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and develop measures to limit big game depredation on adjoining lands.
• Plan for the main building on the property to be used by the public, to showcase natural resource management and restoration activities, and provide opportunities for educational innovation through partnerships with universities and Grant County schools.
• Work with other agencies to develop a plan to return public acreage to private ownership, or county ownership, within five years, possibly through the state’s community forest authority.
Myers thanked the task force members for their “time, trials and tribulations” reaching agreement on final document.
Task force member Mark Webb, former county judge and a neighbor to the prospective park property, said the agreement represents actions the group felt would be good for Grant County and commitments that State Parks should meet. He and other task force members acknowledged that the agency might want to negotiate some portions.
They said the Court should take the lead from here, but also asked to be kept in the loop if changes are made.
The task force began its work with a “straw man agreement,” a draft framework for an operating agreement that touched on local concerns – about taxes, land use, water rights and more – raised in Grant County meetings and in a Nov. 19 letter from Gov. John Kitzhaber.
The task force identified key issues important to the agricultural community, and also focused on “good neighbor” issues, said Webb.
Jeff Thomas, Grant County Farm Bureau president, said the group sought to strengthen the original document, which “had no teeth to it.”
Webb said the agreement is precedent-setting in the fact that it gives a strong local voice to inform some very public decisions, the kind that typically have ignored that local voice in the past.
George Meredith urged the elected Court to move forward with any negotiations, and not delegate that responsibility further. He said he hoped a time of transition is near, after months of often contentious debate over the park plan.
The park will be a realization of a longtime goal of the Merediths, to restore a tract of land and then transfer it to public ownership.