Friday, February 20, 2015

Fidelity Sells Skyline Forest to Singapore-Based Company, Future of Conservation Efforts Unknown

Posted By on Fri, Feb 20, 2015 at 2:12 PM

click to enlarge Skyline Forest - JAY MATHER
  • Jay Mather
  • Skyline Forest
Skyline Forest, the 33,000 square-acre swath of forest land northwest of Skyliners Road, has a new owner. Singapore-based company Whitefish Cascade Forest Resources, LLC, purchased the forest as part of an acquisition of 197,000 square acres of forest lands in Deschutes and Klamath counties previously owned by Fidelity Financial’s Cascade Timberlands.

The sale is controversial because local conservation groups, as well as the Klamath Tribes, had been in talks with Fidelity over the past six years seeking a solution that would allow the Skyline Forest to be protected from development and to return Mazama Forest lands to the Klamath Tribe. 

“This is obviously a disappointment," Don Gentry, Chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said in a release. "Land recovery is an essential bargained-for benefit of the KBRA [Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement]. Nothing less than significant land recovery will work for the Klamath Tribes. We are committed to securing a land base that will provide balance in the Agreement and economic opportunity for our people. Without land recovery, the Agreement simply will not work for the Klamath Tribes.”

Closer to home, Deschutes Land Trust has been working to ensure the conservation of that land for the past decade. In 2009, the State passed legislation that provided a five-year window in which to negotiate a deal. That agreement also granted public access, a boon to the mountain bikers, horseback riders and hikers who blazed their own trails through the area. But that agreement expired last August, and Fidelity opted not to renew.

The hope had been that Fidelity would accept a deal that allowed for development on a small portion of the land in exchange for selling the remainder to Deschutes Land Trust. The Trust then intended to create a community forest, helping fund the sale by allowing a limited amount of logging, which would also help mitigate fire danger.

It's unclear what the sale means for the future of the forest, but Deschutes Land Trust Executive Director Brad Chalfant is cautiously optimistic.

"The short answer is we don’t know what it means for the future," he told the Source. "The fact of the matter is that all of the parties that had been trying to negotiate with Fidelity had stalled out over the past six months and this explains why. Fidelity was looking to sell all its properties as a package."

Fidelity explained its motivation for the sale—for which it received a total cash distribution of approximately $63 million at closing—in a press release.

"We are excited to monetize the value of Cascade for our shareholders," said Fidelity National Financial Chairman William P. Foley, II. "We have been owners of Cascade for approximately eight years and believe it is in the best interest of our shareholders to monetize the value of this land at this time and seek another use for this cash in the hopes of maximizing the value of our FNFV assets."

Chalfant said that while he has not yet made contact with the new owner, he is hopeful that they will be more cooperative than Fidelity. 

"We see this as an opportunity. Fidelity had been difficult to work with," Chalfant said. "We’re hopeful we’ll be able to have a more direct and coherent dialogue."

Whitefish Cascade Forest Resource, LLC, is registered with the State of Oregon in October 2014. An attorney for the company—its only listed U.S. contact—was not immediately available for comment.

While the Land Trust is still interested in pursuing the community forest model with the new company, Chalfant says he isn't married to that approach and is instead focused on the long game and whatever strategy leads to the forest's conservation.

"We’re not locked into a particular model. Ultimately our goal is to see the property conserved, available to public, and managed sustainably," Chalfant said. "We’re committed to the longterm. We’re going to do everything we can to ensure the property is conserved for future generations."

But where Chalfant sees silver linings, Central Oregon LandWatch Executive Director Paul Dewey has a less rosy outlook.

"We’re concerned that this is going to be a new serious threat for partitioning and development in that area, the kind we’ve been fighting for the past 10 years," Dewey told the Source. "My concern is it’s bad enough having a Florida developer own it, and now Singapore? There’s even less appreciation for what this land has historically meant for this area."

He added that development of the forest land is bad for Central Oregon because it disturbs wildlife—mule deer and elk migrate through the areas—and because the forest is at high risk for fires. Two wit, last summer's Two Bulls fire burned parts of the forest and, Dewey said, would have destroyed a home that LandWatch blocked from being built a few years back.

Though the area is zoned for forest use, that zoning allows one dwelling every 240 acres, meaning that the new owner could open it up to low-density development. Until he knows what Whitefish Cascade Forest Resource, LLC, intends to do with the land, Dewey said he'll be watching out for county land use applications. 

"Frankly, any development in that area, given climate change and what we know now about fire risk after Two Bulls, doesn’t make sense," Dewey said.

For more on this story, check out next week's issue of the Source, in print and online February 25.

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