CANNON BEACH - A proposal to acquire 800 acres of the Ecola Creek watershed from the state Department of Forestry is already generating a lot of conversation - and the City Council hasn't even decided if it will ask voters to support it.

But if the City Council does ask voters to decide on a $4 million bond measure in May's election, the proposal is bound to be a hot topic in town.

Supporters of the idea to buy timberland to trade with the state Department of Forestry for the 800 acres the department owns in the watershed say they want to protect the watershed from clear-cutting.

But opponents question how the city will manage the land, and they wonder whether asking property owners to pay $4 million in a bad economy is wise.

Mayor Mike Morgan calls it a "wonderful project" that would "add immeasurably to the value and environment of the town."

"It's 800 acres, and it has been logged in the past. I don't think you can count on it remaining as open space and unlogged area in the future," Morgan said. "This could be one area that we could point to and say 'this is preserved forever.'"

While the proposal has often been discussed in council executive sessions and in public meetings, a public hearing this week attracted so much public interest that nearly every chair in the council chambers was taken.

Former Mayor Jay Raskin told the City Council that while protecting the watershed would enhance the environment, it also could boost the dragging economy.

It fits nicely, he said, with the city's established Haystack Rock Awareness Program and with plans to restore the Pompey wetlands and build pedestrian and bike trails through the city. All of those things will attract tourists, Raskin added.

"Although this is a hard economic time, I think we have to look toward the future. This project is needed for the long-term survival of Cannon Beach," he said.

Nadia Gardner, who procures land for a local land trust, warned the City Council that not only should it worry about logging in the watershed, it should be concerned about housing developments.

Because timber values are so low, she said, timber companies are looking for the "highest and best use" for their lands. "That is not necessarily forestry anymore, it's development," Gardner said.

"In the long term, which could be within 10 years, we can expect there's going to be more and more pressure to put developments in those back hills. (Land-use measures) 37 and 49 are just a foreshadowing of much worse to come," she added.

But opponents said the city needs a management plan and a budget for maintaining the area.

Bill Bennett said he hadn't yet made up his mind, but he wanted to know what the city wants to do with the watershed. He urged the council to wait until November to put a bond measure on the ballot. The delay, he said, would give the city more time to develop a management plan.

Bennett also echoed others when he expressed concerns that voters also would be asked to pay for moving the schools out of the tsunami zone.

"The schools are in the tsunami zone, and the trees will still be there up the creek when the tsunami stops washing across the schools," Bennett said.

Frank Little also expressed concern about the property's management.

"You're very optimistic that you can get the public, once they bought it, to agree that they won't use it," Little said.

But Jerome and Jan Arnold both urged the council to move ahead with the proposal.

While Jerome Arnold talked about the creek being one of the region's best fishing spots, Jan Arnold told how they often take school children on tours of Ecola Creek and rescue the fingerling salmon from stranding pools.

"I want to say to them and future generations that we did the right thing," she said.

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