Private land abundant in Sisters' forests


Last updated 4/2/2024 at 10:43am

Photo by Bill Bartlett

Amid the sprawling national forest, there are thousands of acres of private timberlands.

It often comes as a surprise to Sisters Country folk when out hiking deep inside the Deschutes National Forest and they come across fences or other indicators that they are now upon private lands. "How does anybody have a ranch smack dab in the middle of the forest?" Clay and Maureen Whittier asked as they came upon Skyline Forest.

They were snowshoeing near Three Creek Butte via Snow Creek Road when they faced a pair of signs: "NOTICE Entering Private Property" and "PLEASE BE RESPECTFUL. Thank You." Little did they know that the property in question is 33,000 acres. Nor did they know that they could buy it – for $95 million, down from its original asking price of $127 million. Nor is it a ranch.

In this case it's one of the most controversial pieces of land in all of Oregon - Skyline Forest. The Whittiers were not interested in the politics of the property or the combatants as how it is possible to have any private property of any size in a public forest.

The answer is complicated to say the least. Basically it all goes back to the days when railroads were connecting the West to the more settled lands east of the Mississippi. Eric Olmanson of the University of Wisconsin explains: "As railroads sought to expand westward into sparsely settled regions, they faced a serious dilemma: until the lands around the tracks were settled, passenger and freight traffic would be too small for the railroad company to survive. Furthermore, without rail connections, settlement was bound to continue at a slow and gradual pace.

"The solution came in 1850 when Congress voted to grant more than two million acres to the state of Illinois to aid the construction of a north-south line. Over the next two decades, more than 129,000,000 acres (about 7 percent of the continental U.S.) was ceded to eighty railroad companies. The awarding of grants led to sectional conflicts, abuses, and continual arguments over whether or not the grants were too generous to the railroads, but in 1872 Poor's Manual stated that 'no policy ever adopted by this or any other government was more beneficial in its results or had tended so powerfully to the development of our resources by the conversion of vast wastes to all uses of civilized life.' While the land grants may not have been all bad, most scholars take a more negative, or more nuanced, view."

In 1897 the Organic Act was passed to protect watersheds and forests while still allowing the timber industry to continue. The Transfer Act of 1905 established the U.S. Forest Service as a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This agency was formed to map, maintain, and protect forests, as well as provide water and timber for national benefit.

Ninety-nine million acres were added to the national forests in 1907 and in 1922 the Secretary of Agriculture authorized the selling of national forest land in exchange for private land of equal value, which changed the National Forest Service from essentially a conservation organization to one that focused on the logging industry.

According to the Forest Service there are an estimated 10.6 million family forest and woodland ownerships. They control more than any other group: family forests, 38 percent; federal government, 31 percent; corporate, 20 percent; state, 9 percent; local, 2 percent. So finding a private grove in the middle of the forest should not be much of a surprise.

Further, the Forest Service says, "These other owners supply nearly 30 percent of the water we drink as well as clean air, fish and wildlife habitat, and significant recreation opportunities. And, provide over 90 percent of our domestically-produced forest products, including the timber needed to build homes and fuel wood for heating them."

The United States National Forest comprises about 132 million acres. There are 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands containing 193 million acres of land. These lands comprise 8.5 percent of the total land area of the United States, an area about the size of Texas. About 87 percent of national forest land lies in the Western United States, mostly in mountain ranges. Alaska has 12 percent of all national forest lands.

Oregon Wild reports that national forests cover about 16 million acres (about 25 percent) of Oregon. These 10 forests are managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 15.7 million acres of land in Oregon - much of it high desert. In Oregon, within the Northwest Forest Plan area, there are 7.1 million acres of National Forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service and 2.6 million acres of public land managed by BLM.

The Oregon Department of Forestry manages about 821,000 acres of forest land in the state, on six large state forests and some other scattered lands.


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