Newest Deschutes commissioner plans to hit ground running on environmental issues

December 25, 2020
Newest Deschutes commissioner plans to hit ground running on environmental issues

With tens of thousands of people expected to move to Central Oregon over the coming decade, local leaders say Deschutes County needs to start preparing for their arrival. For Phil Chang, that means elevating key environmental issues most vulnerable to population growth.

Making forests more fire-resilient, doing more with limited water supplies and protecting open spaces are a handful of the issues Chang hopes to address after he is sworn in as the newest Deschutes County commissioner in January.

Chang, originally from the New York’s Hudson Valley, has a natural resources background in stark contrast from that of outgoing Commissioner Phil Henderson, whose career was in law and homebuilding. Until his run for commissioner, Chang was working for the Oregon Department of Forestry as a forest restoration program lead, and still consults on resource and renewable energy projects.

That experience could serve him well as he seeks to address drought, dwindling water supplies, low river flows, loss of wildlife habitat, and wildfire.

Restoring forests to a healthier condition has been central to his work over the past decade, and it’s expected he’ll bring that experience to the table when he starts work as commissioner.

His work includes participation with the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project, where he developed a plan to restore 250,000 acres of the Deschutes National Forest.

Chang, 50, said he plans to beef up already existing projects to restore forests, work that includes thinning, brush mowing and prescribed burns, all strategies that make forests healthier and more resilient to wildfire.

Chang also plans to focus on the restoration of flows to the Deschutes River and making more water available to junior water rights holders. In Central Oregon, that means assisting North Unit Irrigation District, which has run chronically short of water in recent years, forcing farmers to fallow a quarter or more of their farmland.

Chang supports efforts by irrigation districts to pipe leaky canals in Central Oregon, but he also wants to see individual farms become more efficient with their water use.

“Conserving water makes agriculture more resilient to future drought,” said Chang. “We can do canal piping; we can put water back in the river, and we can deliver pressurized water to farmers so they can use more efficient water application processes, such as sprinkler systems instead of flood irrigation.”

Chang also sees opportunities to change or amend outdated laws that work against water conservation and water leasing.

“If you want to lease water, you have to fallow acres,” said Chang. “That is the wrong incentive structure. People should be incentivized to implement on-farm efficiency by being permitted to lease the water saved. That is a state structure that needs to be revised.”

Some landowners might be reluctant to participate in water leasing and water marketing because it can jeopardize their exclusive farm use tax deferral, said Chang.

Changes to state laws to undo disincentives to water leasing will be part of his agenda, he said.

“I can help elevate that issue and speak with state reps who represent our community,” said Chang. “I would be eager to push that.”

As Chang focuses on environmental issues, another issue that needs to be addressed is population growth. He anticipates the population in Deschutes County to grow by 50,000 people over the next 10 years and says housing improvements will be critical.

“We cannot grow well and accommodate all those people with the kinds of patterns of development that have characterized our community in the past,” said Chang.

Chang wants to see scarce land used efficiently and would prefer to see more duplexes, triplexes, cottages, and smaller footprint housing, rather than more large lot single-family homes.

“I don’t think five years from now everyone needs to live in an apartment building,” said Chang. “My goal in encouraging efficient land use is to retain the beautiful spectrum of living opportunities we have in Deschutes County, from people who live on farms to single-family homes to more urban living.”

“Orderly and planned” urban growth boundary expansions will be necessary for growth in the county, said Chang.

He is against stripping away exclusive farm use zoning for large areas of Deschutes County as a way to build on rural properties.

“We have an ongoing debate,” said Chang. “If areas are marginal farmland, should we take away the (exclusive farm use) designation and open them for development? I generally don’t think areas that are far from existing population centers in the county are appropriate for new rural subdivisions.”

Keeping rural lands rural, said Chang, is also key in storing carbon in the ground and forests. Low-tillage agricultural practices are one way to keep more carbon in the ground, he said.

“Cover a landscape in pavement and homes and it’s not storing as much carbon anymore,” he said. “We need to maintain forests and agricultural lands and to manage the trees and soils well to store a lot of carbon in the landscape. We can contribute to fighting climate change by having healthy forests and agriculture.”

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