Rachel Odell

Critics on Tuesday night slammed a proposed trade of Deschutes National Forest land near Sisters for land in the Steens Mountain Wilderness, despite efforts of the swap's proponents to make the exchange more palatable.

About 200 people gathered in a lecture room at Sisters High School. The majority who spoke told the Sisters City Council, which held the meeting, that the proposed trade unfairly takes well-traveled forest out of the public domain.

At issue is a land trade that would give Sisters resident George Stroemple about 460 acres of Forest Service land in exchange for about 1,240 acres in the Steens Mountain Wilderness.

About 30 people spoke, with 25 people opposing the swap and five supporting it.

Tom Boring owns property near the parcel proposed for trade. He said his access to Squaw Creek would be cut off if the swap goes through.

”For those of you who own land bordering public land, I think this is a travesty,” Boring said.

But proponents said the trade would put into Stroemple's hands land that the Forest Service is not managing in a way that prevents disease or wildfire.

Guy Mountz, who also owns private property surrounded by national forest, commended Stroemple and said he would be the best land manager.

”I have known George for many years, and he is the kind of guy who doesn't just meet your expectations,” he said. ”George exceeds them. Land trades do happen. This one seems reasonable, and I am supportive.”

Outlined in a draft bill that proponents hope the Oregon congressional delegation will introduce this year, the version of the swap that was debated Tuesday night has been scaled back from the original.

Instead of 690 acres in Sisters, the current proposal discusses 462 acres of the Deschutes National Forest. Of that, a conservation easement held by the Forest Service would leave 250 acres open to unrestricted, non-motorized daytime use.

Also, the legislation would grant a permanent 30-foot-wide public access easement along the west bank of Squaw Creek, which runs through the property. No golf courses or destination resorts would be allowed, and two houses plus a caretaker's house could be built.

In exchange, the 1,240 acres Stroemple owns on Steens Mountain would be transferred to the Bureau of Land Management for inclusion into the wilderness. Stroemple acquired the deeds to that land in February 2002. County records do not say how much he paid, but appraiser Bob Bancroft said the land was listed for sale for $1.4 million.

Critics object to a legislated land swap, saying they have no opportunity for public comment. An alternative process, known as an administrative trade, solicits public comment and provides an environmental analysis of the trade. However, when a trade involves different federal land agencies, such as the BLM or the Forest Service, administrative swaps are prohibited.

Janine Blaeloch of the Seattle-based Western Land Exchange Project, a group that opposes land swaps, spoke at Tuesday's hearing and told the crowd they were being forced to ”make a horrendous choice.”

”There is no denying the land in Steens is incredible,” she said. ”But this is an unbearable decision . . . you have paltry opportunity to comment.”

In a written statement, Sisters resident Georgia Gallagher urged the proponents to drop the swap. Her family homesteaded the property that is now proposed for trade.

”I grew up on this land and am intimately familiar with it,” she wrote. ”I would hate to see it go into private hands.”

But Tim Lillebo of the Oregon Natural Resources Council said his group endorses the trade because it results in a net gain of public land. The property in Sisters is not designated as old growth, and it has been logged and has roads. The land in Steens is relatively pristine and houses about 400 acres of aspen trees.

Created by the Steens Mountain Management Act of 2000, the wilderness, which is about 250 miles southeast of Bend, protected about 175,000 acres of land. During the first round of legislation, Congress approved several land swaps to remove private land from Steens Mountain.

The proposed Stroemple exchange is one of four included in the draft legislation, which aims to make public all remaining private inholdings within the wilderness.

Congressional representatives have not yet committed to introducing legislation. In recent hearings held in Central Oregon, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said they were committed to working with communities to finalize the Steens Wilderness.

Rachel Odell can be reached at 541-617-7811 or rodell@bendbulletin.com .