GOLD BEACH A new state program to grant property tax exemptions on private property designated as wildlife habitat was greeted warily by the Curry County Commissioners and County Assessor Jim Kolen Monday.

Commissioner Marlyn Schafer was concerned about how much property in Curry County might be involved.

She said she knew of one property of about 225 acres near Foster Bar on the Rogue River that might qualify.

We need to look at this closely, said Schafer. It could reduce tax revenues.

Fortunately, she said, the county doesnt have to decide whether or not to grant the exemptions until Jan. 1, 2003.

The state law will then go into effect unless the county passes an order forbidding such an exemption.

Commissioner Rachelle Schaaf said she was concerned because the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, not the county assessor, would have control over the designation.

I have a lot of questions about it, she said.

Kolen said it is an issue statewide. He recommended putting the idea aside for six months, then forming a committee to study it.

He also suggested checking with commissioners in other counties. He feared the law would take tax-producing property out of production.

Commissioner Lucie La Bont agreed with Kolen. She said she needs to know more about why the Legislature came up with the law. She said she would check with legislative land-use committees.

She recommended waiting six months to see what the rest of the state was doing with the new law.

Schafer said she might be able to put the issue on the regular meeting agenda of the Association of Oregon Counties.

Schaaf asked what would happen to the one existing private wildlife property in Curry County if the commissioners decide to reject the new law. La Bont said it was probably grandfathered into the tax structure anyway.

Citizen Henry Lustig asked what advantage the county would gain from participating in the law. Schafer said that is the big question.

The commissioners also received a letter from Jackson County Commissioner Jack Walker warning that the law will automatically go into effect in counties that dont pass orders opposing it. He said the Jackson County commissioners passed such an order Nov. 28.

He said House Bill 3564 stipulates that a county must act by resolution or other decision to forbid such plans and special assessments prior to Jan. 1, 2003, or the county will never be allowed to adopt such a prohibition.

Jackson Countys order said the county had not allowed for such special assessments in the past.

It also said a significant portion of land in Jackson County could potentially qualify for the special wildlife habitat assessments.

The granting of these special assessments would create a permanent and severe fiscal harm to Jackson County and to other taxing districts in the county, said the order.

While prohibiting the wildlife property tax exemption, the order also said Jackson County supports the conservation and enhancement of wildlife habitat on private property through voluntary efforts.

The commissioners also received a letter from Polk County Commissioner Mike Propes urging them to accept the state law.

Propes said the Legislature created the Wildlife Habitat Conservation and Management Program in 1993 as a pilot program in Polk and Marion counties.

The program was established to remove disincentives for private landowners who want to provide high quality wildlife habitat on their properties, he said.

Propes said the 1997 Legislature expanded the program to include all counties.

The program originally applied only to eligible land in farm zones, or mixed farm and forest zones.

The 2001 Legislature also made forest lands eligible, and allowed the lease or sale of in-stream water rights.

Propes said the 2001 Legislature also specified that counties must decide not to participate by Jan. 1, 2003 if they choose to not allow landowners to enjoy the benefits provided by the program.

He explained that under the program, a landowner with a wildlife habitat conservation and management plan would be eligible for the same property assessed values that would apply if the land was being farmed or used for commercial forestry.

He said landowners may continue commercial activities on their lands as long as they are compatible with the plan.

Polk County has had very positive experiences with the program, said Propes. It is an important nonregulatory tool that provides benefits to landowners and the public for minimal cost.

It can be used to address a broad range of environmental values from clean water to endangered species conservation, he said.

The program will be most effective if available to all Oregon landowners, said Propes.

Although counties may decline to participate, he said, opting out would deny people who volunteer to conserve habitat the tax benefits that may allow them to do so.

According to a fact sheet on the program, 24 Oregon counties currently participate. As of 2001, that included 47 landowners with 36,650 acres of land.

Most qualifying properties were already in agriculture or forest tax deferral programs, so the wildlife deferral did not reduce tax revenues to those counties.