A large group of people in Coos County, including several from Myrtle Point, attended a meeting last Friday night in Coquille to protest a proposal by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.
Many of those who spoke said the federal government already owns enough land in Oregon and they could see no reason to spend millions of dollars to purchase more.
A map that has been widely circulated shows that all of the land on both sides of the Coquille River up to river mile 10.2 are being considered for expansion.
One concern expressed repeatedly in the Coquille meeting and in a subsequent meeting with Congressman Ron Wyden was removing land from the tax rolls.
The latest proposal to purchase land involves 154 distinct parcels comprising 4,567 acres, according to information provided by Coos County Assessor Steve Jansen.
Those parcels have a real market value of $24,524,243 and a total assessed value of just under $10 million.
The gross property taxes off those lands is over $100,000 a year.
Port won't sell
One group that has made it clear that they will not sell their land to USFWS is the Port of Bandon.
The Port voted unanimously at its December meeting not to sell its 80-acre parcel on the north spit of the Coquille River to become part of the Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).
Several of the same landowners who spoke in Coquille attended the port meeting, urging commissioners not to sell their land.
One of the major opponents was port commissioner Reg Pullen, an archaeologist, who said it's a matter of freedom.
"There would be fewer opportunities for people to do things there if it was refuge property versus land owned by someone else," Pullen said.
"People use it to run their dogs, dig gravel, go rock hounding, hunting, fishing, cutting firewood, picnicking on the river beach and so forth. They can drive right down to the water. We need to keep some places like that where people can have that freedom.
"I love wildlife refuges, but I want to make sure there's a balance. I think a mix of ownerships along the river is a healthy thing — some lands protected for the USFWS, and some lands protected for people to do what
they want to do," Pullen said.
He added that Bandon's annual Fourth of July fireworks display has been set off from the north spit for many years, and from the port's land for the past several years.
Referring to a study funded by USFWS on the impact of fireworks on offshore birds, Pullen said the government "would probably like to see the fireworks minimized or stopped. I'm a traditionalist and I know people love the fireworks. I wouldn't want that to be lost."
Gina Dearth, port general manager, said staff recommended against selling the north spit parcel "now or at any time in the future."
USFWS officials are quick to point out that they will not condemn land or take it through eminent domain. They will only deal with willing sellers.
Expanded in 1999
In November 1999, USFWS announced that the approved boundary for the NWR had been officially expanded by an additional 577 acres.
Established in 1983, Bandon marsh NWR included 304 acres of tidal wetlands and adjacent uplands in the lower Coquille River Estuary in and adjacent to the City of Bandon.
The refuge expansion area, east of Highway 101 (can be seen from Bullards Bridge) along the north bank of the Coquille River, included tidal wetlands, forested wetlands, lowland pastures, riparian corridors and
At that time, USFWS spokesman Roy Lowe said the restoration of up to 400 acres of tidal wetlands .... would provide for compatible types of wildlife dependent recreation.
But critics of the latest expansion say that never happened.
"We were told that they would allow duck and skeet shooting on that property, but they won't allow any hunting," said Bandon city councilor Brian Vick.
He said hunting is allowed on the original refuge, but not on the 1999 expansion, which saw USFWS pay about a million dollars for the former Dave Philpott ranch, owned at that time by the Bussmann family.
And that's one reason he is adamantly opposing any further expansion.
Jill Halliburton, the former Jill Coffman who grew up in Myrtle Point, is one of the property owners who received a letter in November about the latest expansion
The letter points out that the USFWS (commonly referred to as the Service) is developing a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for the refuge.
"I want to emphasize two key points. First, the Service has initiated a study
to possibly expand the boundary of the Refuge," said Roy Lowe, who works
out of the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Newport.
"The second key point is that you and other private landowners would not be
required to participate in any aspect of our land protection proposal
(e.g. fee title purchase, conservation easement or agreement) regardless
of where your land is located.
"Landowners within the expanded boundary would be under no obligation to sell their
property to the Service."
Some say that is all well and good, but if the government offers people enough
money, they undoubtedly will sell their property, effectively removing it
from the tax rolls.
"More than 4,500 acres is being requested, and you can see the writing on the
wall that more acreage up river is in the next phase," said Halliburton.
"Roy Lowe is quoted as saying 'when you restore a marsh, it's forever.'
You can say the same thing about removing taxable property: once sold to
any federal entity, it is forever off the tax rolls. It also will be
forever unable to contribute to the county economy in anywhere near the
"I can't fathom how the federal and state governments (our money) can justify
removing that value from our taxable property in Coos county, much less
come up with funds to help 'restore' it, and still look us in the eye and
say they cannot come up with timber replacement money that was promised
decades ago," she said.
$19 million in grants
In January 2011, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the award of
more than $19 million to support 24 conservation projects benefiting fish
and wildlife on more than 5,900 acres of coastal habitats in 12 states.
The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board was awarded $1 million to help acquire
and restore approximately 622 acres of coastal wetlands in the Coquille Valley ... for permanent conservation, protection and restoration by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"This project is the first phase of a larger initiative by ODFW to conserve and restore approximately 3,000 acres in the lowlands along the lower Coquille River encompassing some of the most productive wetland habitats on the Oregon Coast. The total cost of the first phase is $2.506,000," according to the release from the Interior department.
"Protection and restoration of freshwater wetlands would complement downstream
estuarine restoration efforts on Bandon National Wildlife Refuge.
"Do not be mistaken: this effort to expand the marsh is not about the ecology.
It's about control," said Halliburton. "As I look back on the last 30-40
years I can clearly see how we have very gradually lost control and
therefore the choice to be able to make a living here in this beautiful
corner of the state.
"Already over 60 percent of Coos County is in public ownership. Do we really want
to allow that number to grow?" asked Halliburton.