A modest proposal for Central Oregon


Last updated 3/9/2022 at Noon

The State of Oregon, through the State Land Board’s Division of State Lands (DSL), is currently planning to sell 400 acres of public land to the Thornburgh destination resort developer, who is proposing three 18-hole golf courses adjacent to the BLM’s Cline Buttes Recreation Area. The land is also immediately adjacent to Eagle Crest Resort, another destination resort already in the same area. The proposal would transfer the funds generated by this private sale to Oregon’s Common School Fund.

Most of the funding for our public schools in Oregon comes from state income tax revenues. Currently there is such a surplus of state tax revenues that our legislature is struggling to find ways to spend it prudently. In fact, as this short session comes to a close, the Oregon Legislature is proposing to carry over a $760 million ending fund balance into the next biennium. Under such circumstances one would think that the DSL must have an excellent reason for converting these public recreation and resource lands to public funds through a private sale at this particular time. But if they do, they have not yet identified it.

On the other hand, selling these public lands to a destination resort and golf course developer can only have negative impacts on our public land and water resources, and in particular on the public water stored naturally in the aquifer underlying Central Oregon. The only source of water for destination resort development in this area is well water, and that is what this developer proposes to use.

We are already suffering the effects of the most prolonged drought in Central Oregon on record. And, as a result, our public water table is currently dropping precipitously. (The Oregon Water Resources Department records indicate that between 1995 and 2021 the water level of our primary aquifer dropped nearly 15 feet, and the rate of drop is accelerating.) Consequently, some local domestic wells and irrigation wells are already starting to fail. Homeowners and farmers are being forced to drill new wells or deepen their existing wells at considerable expense. These problems will only grow worse as our shared aquifer level continues to drop.

The increasing demands on the decreasing water table in Central Oregon also adversely impacts the Deschutes River and Whychus Creek, where large-scale public and private investments in fish restoration projects are already imperiled. Our groundwater table and our streams and rivers are integrally connected through historic springs and seeps, but many of those springs are currently unable to discharge to our local streams and rivers because of the continuing declines in our ground water levels.

Simply put, we are already pumping more public water out of our common water table than our annual snowmelt and rainfall can replenish. At this juncture, adding new demands on our public water table to irrigate this private developer’s three new golf courses would appear to be the very height of public policy imprudence and poor stewardship of our public land and water resources by the DSL and the State Land Board.

By statute, the State Land Board and the DSL are required to: “Give due consideration, in the sale, exchange or leasing of any state lands under its control to the protection and conservation of all natural resources, including scenic and recreational resources, of such lands, so as to protect property and human life, and conserve plant, aquatic and animal life” (ORS 273.051). But that statutory duty has been sorely neglected in this case.

The DSL has proposed a two-hour public hearing on March 10 via Zoom from 6 to 8 p.m. Because of that time limit, and because a good portion of that time will be taken up by the DSL’s staff report, public testimony will have to be brief and limited. On the other hand, anyone can submit written testimony by email at [email protected] through March 17, so that option might be a better alternative for you. That is what we are doing also.

Please give voice to your own thoughts on this proposal by submitting an email to the above email address by March 17.


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