Travelers have always come to Oregon for its natural beauty. But will the increasing popularity of agritourism, European-style hiking getaways and forest resorts relax Oregon's notoriously strict land-use laws?
Green springs Inn & Cabins, 18 miles southeast of Ashland, is a singular place. A portion of the 150-acre property — which includes an eight-room main lodge and nine rustic cabins — lies inside the sprawling Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. All nine solar-powered cabins are made from felled trees that were on the land when owner Diarmuid McGuire bought 145 acres from Boise Cascade in 2003. The property attracts all sorts — eco-travelers from Europe, Microsoft and Facebook employees, and Pacific Crest Trail hikers looking for their next meal. “People who want to be in the forest but not feel like they’re damaging it,” says owner Diarmuid McGuire.
The property is appealing precisely because of its setting on the edge of a vast wilderness; the 87,000-acre Cascade-Siskiyou forest has one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the Cascade Range, with rare alpine meadows, 120 butterfly species, 200 bird species, and several dozen endangered animal species including the willow flycatcher and the northern spotted owl. In fact, Green Springs Inn is located on “resource land”— in this case, forestland that is protected from development under Oregon’s pioneering land- use laws. (McGuire was allowed to build nine cabins on this land due to a provision in the law that allows seasonal hunting and fishing cabins.)
“We’re in one of the last great boreal forests on the planet!” McGuire says, his voice swelling with pride. “The forest has been abused by human activity, but we’re seeing the trend slowly reversing itself. But people need to understand it to support it.”
In order to do this, McGuire dreams of building an interpretive center on his property that would teach visitors about the Cascade-Siskiyou ecosystem and why it’s so important to preserve. He’d also like to build an additional 30 or 40 cabins, some of which he could sell off to finance the project. But he can’t do that because Oregon’s landmark land-use law forbids it. Passed in 1973, the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Act protects so-called resource land — land zoned as forest or agriculture.
“This legislation is what makes Oregon worth living in,” concedes McGuire. “But on the other hand, if you want to run a business on resource land, you have to deal with a set of pretty strict rules.” An amendment added in 1984 (“Goal 8”) allowed large destination resorts — places like Sunriver and Running Y Ranch — on resource land. “Most of these are gated rural communities with golf courses and some visitor accommodations,” says McGuire. (See “Destination Resorts 2.0,” page 56) But oddly, that amendment still forbade small-scale resorts, projects like Green Springs Inn, with a relatively small environmental footprint.
Which is why McGuire, with the support of Rep. Peter Buckley (D-Ashland), is drafting an amendment that would tweak the law, allowing small destination resorts with educational facilities and low-impact recreational activities (hiking, birding, fishing, etc.) to open on resource land. “Both of those things gave us a lot of heartburn,” says Greg Holmes, Southern Oregon planning advocate for 1,000 Friends of Oregon. It would’ve opened up some of the worst outcomes that have come about under the large-scale resort amendment, Goal 8. So for the time being, McGuire is putting the legislation on hold and instead trying to get approval for his project at the county level. But even if the Jackson County supervisors grant him a permit to build on resource land, that decision could be shot down by a community member.
“Any citizen with $500 can appeal that decision to the Land Use Board of Appeals,” says McGuire. “And I cannot afford to fight an appeal.” If that happens, McGuire says he would rewrite the amendment, hopefully gaining 1,000 Friends’ buy-in, and ask Buckley to back it in the 2016 legislative session.