Group confident it can buy Emerald Mountain

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— Members of a local group formed to save Emerald Mountain from commercial development say they are optimistic they can get a plan approved to purchase the property from the state.

Emerald Mountain includes 6,900 acres that are part of the state's 3 million acres of trust lands. The State Land Board manages the land, as set out by the state constitution, for the purpose of producing reasonable and consistent income over time for the benefit of public schools.

The Emerald Mountain Partnership's goal is to prevent the $17.2-million appraised value of the mountain from spurring development on the natural amenity.

In 1996, a voter-approved measure created the Stewardship Trust, which protects 300,000 acres of land board property, including Emerald Mountain, from immediate development. While the Stewardship Trust is valuable as a short-term tool, it does not protect the lands enrolled in the trust forever.

The Emerald Mountain Partnership is preparing for a July 20 meeting with the State Land Board to submit a revised management plan and a memorandum of agreement.

Partnership member Dan Smilkstein said he's hopeful the State Land Board will support the group's efforts.

"Personally, I'm very optimistic. We've had good agreement with the State Land Board's lawyer, and in general, the board has been supportive," Smilkstein said.

The non-profit Emerald Mountain Partnership is comprised of community members ranging from City Councilman Ken Brenner to former forest ranger Jim Ficke. The group plans to present its management plan and an agreement to purchase Emerald Mountain's 6,500 acres in phases over the next five years.

Partnership members say the group won't own the land but will facilitate the purchase of it for whatever entity they can attract to their cause.

"We probably won't hold the title," said partnership member Ben Beall. "We're more like the middle man."

Something that could hurt the partnership's effort is the possibility that someone else could make a bid for Emerald Mountain.

But he said the partnership's extensive work on crafting both a management plan and a memorandum of agreement with the land board gives the local group an edge.

"The (memorandum of agreement) says what our community can do to sustain agricultural business, ecology and compatible recreation," Smilkstein said. "Our advantage is the involvement of the community in all aspects of the heritage, education and agricultural history, that somebody coming in from the outside couldn't do."

Another advantage for the local group is that a state law, Amendment 16, allows the land board to look at factors other than the highest price. The land board could choose to look favorably on a community coalition with representatives of local government, state agencies and adjacent landowners.

Beall said he's not worried that the land board will have to consider other bids on Emerald Mountain.

"We didn't necessarily like it," Beall said "[But] by the end of this year, we hope to have a signed agreement and then leases will go to the partnership by March 2001."

The land board receives approximately $43,000 a year from agricultural leases on Emerald Mountain. The partnership would like to manage those leases as part of the management plan. The plan also defines ecology zones and types of recreation that are compatible with wildlife.

If the State Land Board approves the partnership's management plan and memorandum of agreement at its July 20 meeting, it will open a time period for bids. In the meantime, Smilkstein urged hikers and other trail users to respect no trespassing signs on Emerald Mountain.

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