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Fidelity's New Skyline Deal Deserves Scrutiny 

When is a deal not a deal? Apparently when one of the parties to the agreement is an out-of-state landowner that controls more than 33,000 acres of forest outside Bend's backdoor. At least that's what we can glean from the recent behind-the-scenes negotiations that have been going on between Fidelity National Timber Resources and a host of other stakeholders that supported a compromise deal two years ago to trade some limited residential and resort development on the northwest end of the roughly 100-square-mile forest that sits between Bend and Sisters.

The local community, led by the Deschutes Basin Land Trust, and more recently, Central Oregon LandWatch, has long sought to preserve Skyline Forest from development. When Fidelity, the Land Trust and LandWatch began negotiating two years ago, everything was on the table and they came up with an agreement that was less than perfect for everyone, but something that all the parties could nonetheless support. That's the nature of compromise, everybody gives something up in order to accomplish a larger goal. In this case, conservation organizations agreed to give Fidelity more flexibility, including the ability to cluster its development in a smaller more development friendly footprint while doubling the number of homes allowed under current state law, from 137 to 283 homes. For LandWatch, which had been fighting successfully for years against any form of development in the Skyline area, it was a major concession.

In exchange, Fidelity agreed to sell the remainder of the forest, roughly 31,800 acres, to the Deschutes Land Trust at timber, as opposed to real estate, value. Fidelity also agreed to allow the Land Trust, which has already secured $4 million in federal forest dollars to acquire Skyline, to conserve a significant portion of the Gilchrist Forest in southern Deschutes County and northern Klamath County as part of the deal.

If the deal sounded too good to be true, maybe it was.

Two years later, Fidelity has come back to its partners and announced that it is pursuing a new deal in Salem that would increase the number of homes in the proposed development from 283 to 800. Fidelity is throwing a bone to conservationists, agreeing to trade some of its development rights on a planned resort near Gilchrist, including housing units and a planned golf course, according to those familiar with the proposal. The company has an ally in state representative Gene Whisnant (R-Sunriver) who called the proposal a "win-win" because it provides Fidelity with tools that it needs, namely a bigger profit margin, to pursue the Skyline deal. That's important because right now the deal exists only on paper and is set to expire in 2014.

"It's got to pencil out for Fidelity. If it doesn't pencil out, it doesn't happen. People have to realize that," Whisnant said.

That's true, of course, and it's the problem with tying conservation to development. But it also highlights one of the shortcomings of the existing deal, and any other deal that comes out of the process, and that is the lack of transparency. As Land Trust Executive Director Brad Chalfant points out, the property in question is a huge community asset and the development and/or conservation of it has large implications for all of Central Oregon. For that reason, Fidelity has an obligation to engage the community before its lobbyists make their pitch to legislators.

If Fidelity doesn't like the deal that they agreed to just two years ago, they should have to show the public why the deal doesn't pencil out. But to simply use the existing deal as a springboard for a new, more favorable one is more than just disingenuous; it's dishonest.

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