Using the state to condemn Federal land

From Dave Hunnicutt
Oregonians In Action

Last month, Utah Governor Gary Herbert approved House Bill 143, a bill that gives the State of Utah the authority to use eminent domain to condemn federal lands within Utah’s borders. At a ceremony for the bill signing, Governor Herbert urged the legislatures of all western states to follow Utah’s lead.

On April 15, we accepted Governor Herbert’s challenge. In the upcoming session of the Oregon legislature, Oregonians In Action will work with the Oregon legislature to pass similar legislation in Oregon. This legislation would provide the biggest economic boost for rural Oregon communities in decades. Faced with skyrocketing unemployment rates, the loss of natural resource industries, and a huge budget deficit, Utah leaders are taking every step possible to revitalize their economy and create family wage jobs for Utah residents. House Bill 143 is a prime example of Utah’s strategy.

Utah is similar to Oregon in many ways — both states have abundant natural resources and a long history of employment in natural resources industries. In Utah, mining plays an important role in the state’s economy. In Oregon, the timber industry has been a steady employer for many rural Oregon towns and counties.

But those industries, and the jobs they create, are increasingly hard to create, due to changes in federal policies on federal lands. In Oregon, for example, federal land management policies and federal regulations have changed dramatically in recent years. Lands that were once managed by the federal government to serve many purposes, including providing timber for Oregon mills, recreational opportunities for Oregon residents, and habitat for wildlife are now locked away by federal laws and regulations that have gone too far.

The results have been predictable — the failure to properly manage federal forestland has resulted in catastrophic wildfires, the loss of wildlife habitat, and the slow destruction of Oregon’s timber industry. Rural Oregon towns that once thrived with hundreds of high-paying blue-collar jobs have seen unemployment rates skyrocket, and jobs move from family-wage levels to low paying, dead-end jobs in the tourism industry.

When the federal government does make federal land available for harvest, bids are few and far between. As the owner of a small-town mill told me, “we don’t even bother bidding on federal contracts anymore — all you’re buying is a lawsuit.”

Some say that this isn’t a problem — after all, timber can be harvested on private lands. That’s true, except for one fact — in Oregon, nearly 55% of the state’s land is owned by the federal government. In Utah, that number is even higher — over 60%.

In short, the Utah legislature realized that the federal government has failed in its efforts to balance the economic needs of the state with the environmental concerns of those in Washington D.C. who don’t understand the role that the natural resource industries play in the western United States. Rather than sitting around complaining, however, Utah decided to take matters into their own hands.

Under House Bill 143, Utah state agencies are given the authority to condemn federal property. Ownership of that property would be transferred from the federal government to the state government. Once acquired, the state would manage the property for the best interests of Utah residents. That may mean that the land is retained in state ownership, or it may mean that Utah would sell the property to private citizens.

In either event, land that is currently mis-managed and neglected by the federal government would be transferred to either state government or private citizens, who would make use of the land to create jobs, revitalize rural communities, boost the economy, and balance state and local budgets. What a concept.

There is no reason why the Oregon legislature can’t follow Utah’s lead. Oregon’s unemployment rate is higher than Utah’s. Oregon needs jobs — especially jobs in industries that pay a good wage, so that working mothers and fathers can feed their families. But federal land policies make that far more difficult than it should be, and for no good reason.

That’s why it is time for the Oregon legislature to follow Utah’s lead and adopt a bill that allows the state to take control over federal government land in Oregon. Oregonians In Action will lead that charge.

As you can expect, although House Bill 143 was approved by the Utah legislature by a significant margin, the bill is controversial. Lawsuits challenging Utah’s authority to condemn federal land are expected at any time, and a challenge will likely reach the United States Supreme Court. That is no reason to stop the Oregon legislature from proceeding, however. Utah has stepped up to take the lead — it’s time that all western states with significant natural resource industries join Utah in defending their economies and rural citizens.

If you agree that Utah’s efforts are important, please contact your state senator and state representative and let them know that you want the Oregon legislature to follow Utah’s lead and adopt similar legislation. With your help, we can make this important legislation a reality!

In the meantime, please contact us if you have any questions.

Dave Hunnicutt
President, Oregonians In Action