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Editorial: Public lands are a shared legacy

Another scam promises to make counties rich

Published on May 19, 2015 12:01AM

Last changed on May 19, 2015 10:28AM

Another scam promises to make counties rich

Unlike many areas of the West, the Lower Columbia River region isn’t overwhelmingly comprised of federal lands.

The premium timberlands here were so valuable they were either snapped up by homesteaders or essentially stolen by a gang of 19th century railroad owners, lumber magnates and corrupt officials. In Clatsop County, much of this went into state ownership after the economic and fire catastrophes of the 1930s and ’40s.

Elsewhere in Oregon and Washington, however, there are vast tracts of federally owned land — assets that have sparked something reminiscent of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s. As pointed out by High Country News, the recent upsurge in effort to wrest control of lands from the federal government has less to do with average citizens than with the Utah-based American Lands Council, or ALC, which is largely kept alive by membership fees paid by local county governments and, ultimately, by local taxpayers in those counties.

In Oregon, Klamath and Wallowa counties help pay for ALC, while in Washington state, Ferry, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Skagit and Stevens counties support the cause.

The earlier iteration of this movement generated plenty of debate during the Reagan administration. But despite the sympathy of leading officials including Interior Secretary James Watt, land ownership wasn’t transferred. It can be argued the “rebellion” cowed agencies into permitting laissez-faire decisions, such as unsustainable levels of logging, which ultimately led to a backlash that brought severe cutbacks from which some rural counties still suffer.

The Center for Western Priorities points out most of the funds raised by ALC go toward paying the staff — fully 40 percent of contributions pay ALC’s executive director’s salary.

“ALC comes in and offers counties this incredible-sounding deal: ‘We’ll get you these lands with minerals and timber and resources,’” the Center for Western Priorities said. “A lot of counties are very taken with this notion, but when you pull back the curtain a bit, (the ALC) is selling an idea that is actually a waste of their time and (their) limited funds.”

Still, the dream of direct local management and ownership of federal lands remains very much alive. A southwest Oregon legislator touted the idea again on OPB just last week.

Why should we care?

Public lands are a shared legacy of all Americans. In our area, they include a national park, extensive wildlife refuges and essential assets of the U.S. Corps of Engineers and U.S. Coast Guard. If transferring ownership to states and counties had become law in the Reagan years, there is a good chance that out-of-state corporations would by now control many of these local lands of significant economic value. That has been the pattern throughout U.S. history.

Despite genuine hardships for counties that heavily rely on timber revenues from federal lands, public ownership is a national birthright. No Congress, president or county commission should ever be allowed to dispose of eternal assets in return for immediate gains.


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