Group will identify fire protection land

POLK COUNTY -- A committee of private citizens and agency officials will be determining the eligibility of local forestland for state fire protection.



POLK COUNTY -- A committee of private citizens and agency officials will be determining the eligibility of local forestland for state fire protection.

The group is looking at more than 290,000 acres in Polk County that sit within the Oregon Department of Forestry's (ODF) West Oregon District, which encompasses 1.1 million acres in a five-county region.

Jeff Classen, unit forester for ODF's Dallas office and a committee member, said a key goal is making certain that areas in the district actually fit the definition of forestland outlined in Oregon statute.

"There may be land we remove from the forestland designation and (add) some that's new to it," Classen said.

The outcome has important implications for owners of land parcels in the district, as ODF provides fire suppression and prevention in its protection boundary.

"If you have a piece of land out there and are looking at the threat of fire, do you want to get an agency that has access to people and equipment necessary to fight forest fires?" said Terry Lamers, committee chairman and part owner of a forest services company that owns timberland southwest of Monmouth. "The obvious answer is, 'yeah.'"

Classen said the Polk committee effort originated with a statewide panel review in 2007 of existing methods of categorizing forestland for fire protection and how to maintain consistent standards among different counties.

The primary benchmark is whether the land meets the statutory definition of forestland: "any woodland, brushland, timberland, grazing land or clearing that, during any time of the year, contains enough forest growth, slashing or vegetation to constitute, in the judgment of the forester, a fire hazard."

The term "clearing" can include grassland or improved area that is contiguous to or surrounded by forestland, the definition further states.

Most district land in Polk County is privately-owned industrial or nonindustrial property. The state, the U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management own the rest.

Owners in the district pay a county-assessed rate per acre, and for lots with structures, a flat fire-surcharge fee. In 2008, the cost was 95.2 cents per acre or $20.62 for owners with less than 21.6 acres. The surcharge was $71.47.

Classen said the need for the comprehensive review stems from changes to forestland in the past few decades.

"Development has happened or there are areas that have been taken out of forestland, then been put back in," he said.

Classen said state laws have permitted county governments to form their own forestland classification committees since the 1950s, but Polk County has never had its own group. ODF determinations have been used by default.

The local committee was formed by county commissioners in early 2008. It's comprised of Classen, Brad Withrow-Robinson of the Oregon State University Extension Service and three landowner members -- Lamers, Don Duhrkopf and Tom Parsons.

Aerial photography of land tracts will be the primary tool used in the classification process, with field visits when the situation warrants it, Classen said.

Review of forestland is the current committee focus, with a goal of concluding by spring. Meetings are open to citizens. Following a public hearing at the end of the process, results will be passed on to the County Assessor's Office for implementation onto tax roles.

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The Polk Forestland Classification Committee will meet at 9 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 15, at the ODF office in Dallas, 825 Oak Villa Road. For future meeting dates and more information: 503-623-8146 or www.co.polk.or.us/Assessor/FCC.asp



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