The massive, highly controversial, Kitzhaber-era land deal between Bandon Biota, a company associated with Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, and Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, finally ended in September 2015. It was a long saga.
The parties reached agreement on the final deal after extensive negotiations on a revised land exchange that would have given Biota 280 acres of Bandon State Natural Area (BSNA) just south of the City of Bandon to build a 27-hole golf course. As in its 2011 proposal, Bandon Biota was to give OPRD parcels on the Coquille River and south of BSNA. Bandon Biota would also provide $450,000 to the Parks Department so Parks could complete the purchase of some small but important parcels in Whale Cove in Lincoln County. The centerpiece: Biota would give the Parks Department $2.5 million to spend on unspecified future acquisitions to the parks system at undetermined future dates. Adding so much cash to the deal was necessary because there was no major piece of land available to make the deal a land swap. The early attempt to use Grouse Mountain Ranch in Grant County failed against strong local opposition. The Parks Commission approved the revised deal in April 2014.
Then all parties finally recognized what ORCA always said: Parks had no power to complete this exchange. Only the U.S. Bureau of Land Management had that power.
BLM’s Power to Approve or Deny
The 280 acres of BSNA was deeded to the State of Oregon in 1968 by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for “public parks purposes only,” as the deed says. If Parks ceases to use any part of BSNA for parks purposes, or attempts to change the use, it reverts to BLM under the terms of the deed and the federal Recreation and Public Purposes Act (RPPA) of 1954. Only BLM has the power to decide whether BSNA lands could be used for non-park purposes — not the Parks Department, and not Bandon Biota or any other organization. BLM in a May 2014 letter warned the Parks Department that in starting to implement their agreement with Biota they were skating close to triggering the reversionary clause, which would bring the land back into BLM ownership.
The details changed somewhat through 2014-15, but it became clear that Parks would have to file an application with BLM to change the use from “public parks purposes only” to “outdoor recreation,” which would allow a golf course. Since lands with this kind of reversionary clause can only be transferred to nonprofit organizations or governments, Bandon Biota would create a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization for the specific purpose of holding the 280 acres. If, after stringent environmental review under Federal law, BLM decided to grant the change of use, Parks and BLM would transfer the 280 acres to the Biota nonprofit. However, the reversionary clause would remain on the land. Biota would have to develop the golf course with a management plan supervised by BLM — and if it were not managed to BLM’s satisfaction, the land would revert to BLM.
It is certain that BLM could have taken no action without full environmental review of the proposed action. In addition, BLM would not have made any decision on a Parks application until the current Resource Management Plan (RMP) was revised in 2015. BLM’s environmental review would have been undertaken under a formidable array of Federal statutes, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the BLM-specific Federal Lands Policy and Management Act and — very importantly — the Endangered Species Act. As BSNA is the only occupied Parks site for snowy plovers (a Federally-threatened species), BLM would have had to weigh the effects of maintaining BSNA for the snowy plover. Research shows that plovers are highly intolerant of human development and the predators that come in its wake. This certainly applies to a golf course just over the dunes from the beach where plovers nest. The likelihood that BLM could have agreed to remove BSNA from conservation ownership under these Federal environmental statutes is small.
The Exchange Did Not Meet Parks Department Requirements
Any exchange initiated by others must under Oregon administrative rules must provide “an overwhelming public benefit to the Oregon State Park system, its visitors, and the citizens of Oregon…that is resounding, clear and obvious.” The coastal state parks are the crown jewel of the State Parks system; more than 65% of all state park visits occur in the coastal parks. We must therefore also weigh the balance from a coastal point of view, since the coastal Parks are so important: would the coastal Park system have been improved by this exchange? No. BSNA’s unique dunal ecosystem would have been severely compromised by taking away 280 acres of it, and bordering much of the remainder with a golf course.
In addition, the exchange would have been the first test of Parks’ new “overwhelming public benefit” rule that sets the criteria for weighing exchanges initiated by others. This land sale — it was not really an exchange, since money was the centerpiece — would have set Parks on the course of expanding the park system by sacrificing one park for others in order to enrich a private business. It also would signal that our parks are for sale to anyone with enough money and political power to gain approval for their pet project. This was a very poor precedent for OPRD to embrace as a guide for future parks management.
The End of the Deal
In September 2015, BLM notified the Parks Department that there would be further requirements, in addition to the application: Bandon Biota would have to pay about $450,000 for the 280 acres, half of the fair market value as determined by recent appraisal. In addition, RPPA would not allow Mike Keiser, the owner of Bandon Dunes, to run the golf course as a commercial venture and give the profits to scholarships and gorse control, which was his chief public rationale for the deal. BLM required all profits to be returned to the golf course and its management. These additional requirements finally caused Mr. Keiser to back out of the project.
ORCA is pleased that the Biota exchange finally collapsed of its own weight. It was always a very poor policy decision for the Parks Department, and would have set a dreadful precedent of selling parks to those with influence and money. Bandon State Natural Area belongs to the people of Oregon, now and hopefully forever. Its rare dune ecosystems, forested uplands and jeweled pocket wetlands will remain in public ownership for public enjoyment.