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Farewell to Skyline Forest? 

After a decade of conservation efforts, the forest's sale casts doubt on future

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Jay Mather

It's a view that keeps building heights low and spirits high—the majestic, snow-capped Cascades, skirted by ponderosa forests. But the future of that view may be in jeopardy.

That's because the 33,000-acre swath of forestland west of Bend known as Skyline Forest—where Bendites mountain bike, hike, and ride horseback on user-created trails—doesn't belong to the people of Oregon. Despite the access the public has enjoyed over the past decade, Skyline Forest is—like 34 percent of Oregon's forests—privately owned.

For the past decade, Deschutes Land Trust has been working to change that, negotiating with former landowners Fidelity National Financial to secure a deal to turn those 33,000 acres into a community forest.

But those plans stalled last fall, and appeared to grind to an unexpected halt last week, when Fidelity announced it sold a nearly 200,000-acre parcel of land, including Skyline Forest, to Singapore-based Whitefish Cascade Forest Resources, LLC.

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. In turn, the Trust intended to create a community forest, helping fund the sale by allowing a limited amount of logging, which would also help mitigate fire danger.

But now, those hopes appear to be dashed.

"The short answer is we don't know what it means for the future," Deschutes Land Trust Executive Director Brad Chalfant 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."

Included in that package is the Mazama Forest, land the Klamath Tribe had hoped to acquire to support the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KRBA).

"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. 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."

Fidelity assumed a controlling interest in Cascade Timberlands, then owner of Skyline Forest, in May 2006 and notified Deschutes Land Trust that it was interested in pursuing a conservation transaction. For the next eight or so years, things seemed to be working in the forest's favor. Oregon re-enrolled in the Federal Forest Legacy Program, and a bill passed in the Oregon legislature outlining a plan for Skyline Forests' conservation, giving Fidelity five years to act.

But the clock ran out before a deal was cemented. And Fidelity opted to sell.

"We are excited to monetize the value of Cascade for our shareholders," said Fidelity National Financial Chairman William P. Foley, II, in a release. "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, of Deschutes Land Trust, 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 Resources registered with the State of Oregon in October 2014. An attorney for the company—its only listed U.S. contact—has not responded to requests 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. To 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.

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