Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bull Run land-swap not a good deal for citizens

We often hear the City Council assure us that logging and development could never happen in the Bull Run watershed because the land is Federally managed and therefore Federally protected. Today, the Portland Water Bureau brings to City Council a land-swap proposal involving land in our watershed. This swap will remove some of our watershed lands out from underneath significant Federal protections.

Oregon Wild, formerly known as the Oregon Environmental Resources Council, has been involved in the development of this proposal and they have flagged a serious flaw with it; you can read their article alerting citizens to this flaw here:

Stakeholders like Oregon Wild have worked with the City to write a new “protection code” for City land, so that the Bull Run watershed land that is about to move from Federal hands to PWB will be similarly safeguarded as if it were still Federally managed. According to Oregon Wild, this new code goes a long way to offering solid protection but falls short in one key area: it is weak on public involvement when management makes major decisions (like, say, choosing to log).

In an email to one concerned community member who contacted City Council this week regarding this land-swap, David Shaff of PWB assured there would be plenty of time to weigh in on this discussion in the future. Don’t worry your pretty little head, what we are deciding today is of little consequence, you can speak later (clearly, my own editorializing of what I read in Shaff’s letter). Portlanders know better; weighty agendas are furthered with incremental decisions like this one. There is no reason to move forward with any land-swap discussion if we can’t first all agree on how to protect that land once it is removed from Federal hands. PWB has historically been hostile to public involvement, and as long as that culture persists within PWB, citizens must be cautious and not let go of any leverage.

Bull Run has a long and sordid history. The parties involved and their agendas are nothing short of complicated. At times, both the Federal government and the Portland Water Bureau have promoted logging and commercial development within our watershed; at every turn, involved citizens have been the protectorates of our watershed and our drinking water. I once read a great PHD thesis exploring 100 years of competing influences in Bull Run, which presented differing definitions of “natural resources”. The paper is “Cooperation and Conflict in a Federal-Municipal Watershed,” by Roy R. Wilson (I found pages 84-124 quite educational and enjoyed reading about the 1973-76 legal case regarding logging in Bull Run).

Be suspicious. We have arrived in a new era in which Wall-Street discusses water as “the new oil”, while it leverages water-system investments as awkward as the ones it made in real estate. If competing influences in our watershed have been complicated before, they will be mind-boggling from here on out. Citizens will need to actively police decisions made in Bull Run. These new City Land protection codes don’t offer the public the kind of oversight access they will need in this new paradigm. If Oregon Wild says this proposal is flawed, you don’t want it to move forward.

UPDATE 2-21-10: Unfortunately, Portland's City Council approved this agenda item regarding the land-swap proposed in the Bull Run watershed. Only Commissioner Amanda Fritz stood with the myriad of citizen-groups requesting more substantive public participation policies; Commissioner Fritz voted to halt the land-swap discussion until the flaws in the city-land protection codes are addressed.

Commissioner Nick Fish was disappointing on this vote, contending his yes vote was just the beginning of a conversation; he fails to recognize the leverage sacrificed by allowing the discussion to move forward while so much of the community is already dissatisfied. Nevermind the fact that they aren't listening to citizen input right now, they promise to listen more, later on in the conversation.

This vote allows the Portland Water Bureau to formally open the next phase of the land-swap process. If left unchanged, these new city-land protection codes (now the only safeguards on the land to be held by PWB) seem to eliminate all environmental impact review processes, previously provided for under Federal regulations and open to public input. PWB can now move on any development on their new land holdings without a review. You can view the City Council discussion on this topic, items 220 and 221: