Curry County, nestled in the southwestern-most corner of Oregon, does not often make headlines. But in the last couple of weeks, a proposal by the County to convert land at Floras Lake, near Blacklock Point, into two golf courses, has made the news. The deal would require a land trade with the State of Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and would include transferring control of the airport at Cape Blanco from the State to the County. On Sunday the Oregonian ran a story on the proposal, and today’s paper included an editorial on the same subject.
Floras Lake and Blacklock Point are incredibly special places on Oregon’s coastline. Home to a pygmy pine forest, endangered western bog lilies, and sandstone beach cliffs, the Floras Lake Natural Area has been in the State parks system since 1943. The area is rugged, wild, and primitive.
So why would the county propose to transform this wild natural area into a manicured golf course and pave over existing trails? Curry County, like many other rural counties, is projecting a budget deficit as soon as next year, due in large part to the sunsetting of federal funds for counties rich in resource lands. The Secure Rural Schools Act provides funds for schools and counties that historically relied on shared timber receipts from federal lands, and is set to expire this year. Much of Curry County’s land is federally owned, making those federal dollars an important part of the county’s expected income. Curry County is particularly vulnerable also because its property tax rate is extremely low, at only 60 cents for every $1,000 assessed value. The county is understandably concerned about its ability to continue important public services and functions in the absence of funding.
Curry County is not alone in facing these challenges. Many coastal communities continue to grapple with the problem of reduced timber jobs, diminishing fishing returns, and in cases like Curry County, remote access. I saw a similar problem in Ketchikan, Alaska. While living there I learned some of the town’s history, and the opinions of many still bitter over Clinton-era changes to logging practices on federal lands (the Tongass National Forest essentially surrounds Ketchikan). There, the cruise ship industry has taken up residence where the local mill once filled jobs. But cruise ships bring their own issues, and often, their own workforce. Ketchikan’s cruise industry and other tourism opportunities help keep the city’s economy afloat, though it may never return to the heyday of the milling era.
But does converting state-owned, unique and remote lands to golf courses really make sense in Curry County? The running of the airport alone would be a major economic endeavor. The airport currently needs significant repairs, estimated at over $1.5 million dollars in necessary improvements. The county asserts that private developers (as yet unnamed) would take all responsibility for financing the development and would be better environmental stewards of the land than the State by improving control of invasive species and erosion. The county so far has not provided any concrete information or details of a proposal to support these claims, let alone to show that such a park would provide the needed funds to make up the budget gaps. The County needs to continue to explore other options and keep in mind that once paved and built on, this unique area will be gone forever.