News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

The $15 million that is finally showing up

In 1996 federal legislation championed by Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield at the tail end of the Timber Wars set aside 37,500 acres of Santiam Canyon forest land for the Opal Creek Wilderness and Scenic Recreation Area.

The Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Management Act included $15 million for Santiam Canyon communities to offset the timber-related economic losses in the area. But for a variety of reasons during the next 20-plus years, under a series of state and federal administrations, no $15 million ever showed up. In fact, it took the devastating 2020 Labor Day weekend wildfires to loosen the federal grip.

And now, Marion County has gone public with a plan for how to spend the $15 million. The U.S. Forest Service has released the funds, with Business Oregon acting as a pass-through entity and the county charged with program administration.

Here is a snapshot of how the county plans to spend the money:

Santiam Rail Trail
($2 million): Funding will develop a multiuse path between the rest area just east of Gates and the town of Gates through Marion County’s Minto Park. Timeline: By Nov. 1, 2027.

Community Planning Projects
($1 million): Including funding for community planning in Gates, Detroit, Mill City and Idanha, development of an Opal Creek Promise Implementation Plan, and a North Fork recreation plan. Timeline: By Dec. 31, 2026. The $1 million is going to Detroit ($115,000 for downtown and code updates), Gates ($115,000 for business district development), the overall Opal Creek implementation plan ($115,000), planning projects in Mill City and Idanha ($120,000 apiece), North Fork planning and executing ($306,000) and county program administration ($103,000). 

New homes continue to take shape as Detroit rebuilds post-fires. Federal funding is assisting the city with its planning efforts and downtown redevelopment. James Day
New homes continue to take shape as Detroit rebuilds post-fires. Federal funding is assisting the city with its planning efforts and downtown redevelopment. James Day

Construction projects
($8.4 million) and non-construction projects ($3.6 million). The Opal Creek Promise plan will seek to prepare a community-driven allocation strategy for the use of the remaining $12 million. Timeline: By July 31, 2028 for non-construction and July 31, 2033 for construction.

“This funding has been nearly 30 years in the making and is a major achievement for Marion County and everyone who lives or visits the Santiam Canyon,” said U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley in a Sept. 21 press release about the program. “Sen. Hatfield saw the opportunity for the Opal Creek Wilderness and led the dedication in 1996, and today we are able to fulfill that promise and secure the full $15 million that was originally authorized.”

Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron, a long-time Detroit-area resident, agreed.

“The citizens of the Santiam Canyon have waited for almost 30 years for Congress to deliver on this promise,” Cameron said in the Merkley news release. “These funds come at a time that will help support recovery from the 2020 wildfires and the continued reduction in sustainable timber harvest. We look forward to this investment making a long term, positive impact to this beautiful, rural area of Marion County.”

Between now and the deadlines noted above a boatload of planning and decision-making must be made on the final $12 million of funding, Marion County officials told The Canyon Weekly.

“We feel confident about completing the implementation plan in about six months,” said Lari Rupp, an economic development specialist with the county.

Rupp and Kelli Weese, Marion County’s economic development program manager, outlined the planning process in a six-page memo forwarded to The Canyon Weekly.

“During this phase,” Rupp and Weese wrote about the implementation plan, “the county will conduct research and outreach efforts to ensure that the allocation aligns with the needs and priorities of the North Santiam Canyon communities. Marion County’s goal is to receive broad community engagement to ensure the funds are spent in a way that the community desires.”

Weese, in a separate email exchange with The Canyon Weekly, outlined a “community-driven allocation strategy for the use of the remaining $12 million in funding. Over the next six months, Marion County anticipates completing public outreach to determine a list of projects/priorities for the funding, then narrowing those down to a final list for consideration and approval by the Board of Commissioners.”

The Rupp-Weese memo also outlined the frustrating history of that $15 million promise that seemingly never would be kept. And please note that a simple online inflation calculator spits out $29.4 million in 2023 today for $15 million in 1996 dollars.

At one point, in March, 2015, as then-Governor Kate Brown resubmitted an economic opportunity plan aimed at releasing the $15 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, she was advised that “the mechanism to distribute the authorized funding no longer existed.”

In 2021, with the Santiam Canyon in a grueling fire recovery phase amid signs that federal assistance would be forthcoming, Marion County and Business Oregon saw an opportunity to go after the $15 million. A year later the first $2 million was allocated, with another $1 million approved as part of a 2023 supplemental disaster appropriation. 

Merkley’s Sept. 21, 2023 news release noted the successful securing of the final $12 million via an agreement between the Forest Service and Business Oregon.

The funds remain at the state level, with Rupp noting via email that “the team is drafting intergovernmental agreements for the funds so that they may pass through from the state level to the county level.”

The area eligible for the Opal Creek Promise is approximately 670 square miles and includes Lyons, Mill City, Gates, Detroit and Idanha as well as the smaller communities of Mehama, Breitenbush, Niagara, Elkhorn, Fox Valley and Marion Forks.

KEY PROJECTS

Santiam rail trail -$2 million

Community planning -$1 million

Construction projects -$8.4 million

Non-constructon projects -$3.6 million

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