Study Demonstrates Success and Challenges Protecting Oregon Resource Lands Since 1974

Craig Beebe, 1000 Friends of Oregon Communications Intern
Wed, 03/16/2011 (All day)

A study released in January reveals that Oregon’s land use planning system has had a great deal of success in protecting private forest, farm, and range land from development.

In 2009, despite rapid population growth over the previous 35 years, the vast majority of private resource land—98 percent—remained in the same use as it was in 1974. Yet there are areas of significant concern in the report, as well.

In particular, the degree of land use change is not regionally balanced, and a large increase in low-density residential uses, especially in forest and range areas, raises significant concerns about the continued viability of resource uses and their balance with natural systems. Altogether 586,000 acres of resource land were lost to low-density residential and urban development from 1974 to 2009.

Forests, Farms and People, a study authored by the Oregon Department of Forestry with the US Forest Service, is the latest in a string of reports ODF has issued, keeping tabs on how the state is performing at fulfilling Land Use Planning Goals 3 and 4(pdf), which mandate the protection of vital agricultural and forest lands. Using digital imagery, taken over several decades, of 37,003 data points on private land throughout Oregon, the study’s authors are able to paint an amazingly thorough picture of land use change statewide.

Overall, the result demonstrates the power of land use planning to protect resource lands from development. Although 586,000 acres of resource land were lost, a clear majority of this change occurred from 1974 to 1984, before most county comprehensive plans took full force and the system envisioned in Oregon’s landmark Senate Bill 100 was completely implemented. This is true despite a rapid increase of population since the 1980s. Furthermore, the vast majority of the post-1984 growth occurred within areas zoned as developable, indicating that planning has helped to direct growth into certain areas while protecting others.

Despite this rosy picture, however, there are areas of concern. One of these is the rise of low-density residential land uses, especially in forest and range areas in Central Oregon. 418,000 acres of low-density residential land uses were developed in the 35-year study period. Although they are less visible, low density development can cause substantial degradation to natural habitat and wetlands, as a recent US Forest Service study has indicated. It was precisely this threat that led ODF to acquire and preserve a large area in Klamath County as the Gilchrist State Forest in 2010. Such actions may be necessary in other areas as well, and ODF's Forest Land Protection Program is a positive effort to do so.

Moreover, the study indicates that developed lands, including low-density residential areas, often spawn additional development. Private land in forest and agricultural uses less than a quarter-mile from low density residential uses is 25 more times likely to develop than land a mile away, the study notes. 66% of the state’s remaining resource land zoned as developable is within ¼ mile of other developed areas. Additionally, the number of structures on resource land not considered “developed” is increasing rapidly, and the impacts of such construction, while technically legal, may not be fully clear.

Additionally, focusing on raw statewide numbers can be misleading. Regionally, the degree of development is far from balanced. In Western Oregon, the Portland metro area (especially Washington County) and the North Willamette Valley led the way in resource land lost to development, losing over a tenth of their respective resource lands. This is of significant concern because these areas have some of the nation’s most valuable farmland, and are among the top producers of many of the state’s valuable agricultural economies. Meanwhile, in the Bend area, low density residential development increased 97% while urban development increased 159% in the study period, a total loss of 13% of the area’s resource lands, leading the state in loss of forestland and rangeland. Josephine County, in southwestern Oregon, lost 14% of its private resource land to development, most of it low-density residential uses.

There is no doubt that 586,000 acres is lot to lose to development. But the take-home message from all the statistics, graphs, and maps of the study is that our land use system has been largely successful at meeting Oregonians’ goals of protecting valuable farms, forests, and working rangeland. To be certain, however, much of this success is due to the tireless work of land use advocates (including 1000 Friends of Oregon and its allies) who hold elected officials and developers throughout Oregon accountable to the letter and spirit of the our land use laws. Over the decades, the system and its advocates have warded off repeated threats at the ballot box and in the Legislature, which has not always been easy. Amid the recession and recovery, calls to develop more of our precious farm and forest land can seem incessant, despite the billions of dollars these resource lands contribute to our economy.

But Oregon’s private farm, forest, and range land is limited, particularly in the most valuable areas. Protecting this land continues to be a challenge, but one that we can meet with the commitment and action of dedicated leaders and citizens. We can then ensure that the next ODF study, to be issued in 2014, will continue to reflect the commitment to balance and beauty that is a hallmark of Oregon’s pioneering land use system.

Download the full report here (pdf).