Time for western states to take back ownership of federal lands

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Natural systems endure an ever evolving cycle of growth and decline. The deterioration accumulates and dominates the landscape when we fail to put the growth to productive use. Too often, failure to manage and utilize the productive growth results in catastrophic destruction through disease and wildfire.

Left to its own devices, the natural way is a boom and bust cycle. These systems can and are being managed to be both more productive and less destructive.

We recently returned from a road trip through four western states. Throughout the trip we observed the stark difference in the management of private and public lands. In general, private lands show the pride of ownership while public lands demonstrate the widespread deterioration inherent in failure to manage resources for sustainable production. Nowhere is that failed management more apparent than in our national forests and parks. Our current federal land management is clearly not working.

Our federal government owns 60 percent of Oregon’s forest lands. Another 34 percent is privately owned, 4 percent is owned by the state, and tribal interests own the other 2 percent.

As recently as 1989 Oregon annual timber harvest exceeded 8.5 billion board feet. Nearly 5 billion board feet of that timber was harvested from Oregon’s federally owned forest lands equaling 60% of the total Oregon timber production. More than 400 timber mills provided family wage jobs to nearly 46 thousand Oregon families. Our per capita income was among the top third in the nation and Oregon’s rural economy was thriving. Timber harvest taxes were a mainstay of local government budgets, providing a significant portion of county expenditures for education, public safety, human services and transportation infrastructure.

Then disaster struck in the form of a false assumption promulgated by government scientists. The Northern Spotted Owl was proposed for listing as a threatened species in 1989. Scientists hypothesized the decline of the owl was being caused by loss of habitat due to logging activities and the encroachment of man.

Two years later a federal district court ruled that the owl was threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The court determined that nearly unlimited critical habitat was required to preserve the bird from extinction. Congress reacted with the Northwest Forest Protection Plan that virtually outlawed the harvest of mature trees on federally owned land. The combined forest harvest regulations imposed by court order and Congressional action decimated our forest industries.

Twenty five years later we know that the hypothesis was false. The Northern Spotted Owl can and does mate and reproduce almost anywhere. The cause of its decline is now understood to be the encroachment and competition of the Barred owl. In fact, foresters armed with shotguns are now dispatched throughout Oregon forests to hunt and kill the barred Owls.

Nevertheless, timber harvest restrictions to protect the owl remain in place. It will take decades to unwind the laws and regulations that were promulgated to allegedly protect the owl. The entire travesty is the direct result of the acceptance of unverified and statistically insignificant scientific assumptions.

Oregon’s annual timber harvest from federal lands plummeted from 60 percent to 12 percent. Nearly 300 timber mills closed and more than 30,000 family wage jobs were lost. What once was Oregon’s largest industrial sector has been reduced to a shadow of its former stature. Klamath, Jackson and Josephine counties together lost 41 mills and 9,000 forest sector jobs. In fact, those federal actions have cost the three counties more than 21,000 total private sector family wage jobs.

Congress appeared to recognize that it is unfair for the federal government to own two thirds of the land in a county and not to participate in the funding base for those communities. It responded by adopting the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-determination Act in the year 2000.

The law was intended to act as a funding bridge for local governments while rural communities developed non-forest dependent private sector jobs. The Act provided federal tax money to the counties in lieu of timber harvest taxes for six years. The money was to be used by affected counties to help fund education and transportation. It also authorized county projects for search, rescue and emergency services including fire fighting, community service work camps, conservation and recreation easement purchases, forest related education opportunities, fire prevention and county planning for community forests.

Portions of the Act have been repeatedly reauthorized to continue some of the payments to counties. However, Congress has apparently forgotten its obligation as representatives of federal land owners to participate in the community revenue base. Each time it has become more difficult to convince a congressional majority to continue the funding. Our congressional delegation is not at all confident that reauthorization will continue to occur, especially in the midst of the current critical need to curtail federal government spending.

Congress appears to also have ignored the fact that, because two thirds of the land in many of the affected rural counties is owned by the federal government, the opportunity for alternative job creation is severely limited. Although it assumed that reindustrialization would occur within a decade, it provided virtually no meaningful incentives for that alternative industrialization to occur and to replace the lost jobs. It also ignored the reality that its actions directly destroyed the multi-generational culture of timber dependent employment in many of these communities.

Moreover, the federal government has virtually stopped managing its public land resources. It has demonstrably failed to produce meaningful economic value or even renewable energy from the land it holds in trust for the people.  Furthermore, it is actively working to close down the public’s access to their public lands. Our vast federal forest resources are being allowed to deteriorate, to “naturally” die and rot in the forests, until catastrophic wildfires destroy all merchantable value, not to mention millions of forest animals.

I strongly believe that the time has come for the western states to take back the ownership of federal lands. Our Constitution, federal law and more than two centuries of precedent dictate that the federal government is obligated to rescind its ownership in the vast expanses of forest and rangeland to the states and to the people.

Other western states are engaged in a concerted and cohesive effort to make that transfer of ownership take place. The wealth that can and should be generated from the sustainable use of our forest, rangeland and mineral resources would solve all of our funding problems for schools, public safety and infrastructure needs

It is time for Oregon to join in the effort to restore the economies of our western states.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls