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Oregon Lawmakers Debate Whether To Study Federal-To-State Land Transfers

Some Oregon lawmakers want to create a task force to examine whether the state should try to take control of federal lands. Supporters acknowledge there's no clear path to transferring federal lands to state ownership. This bill would create a task force that would study the feasibility and cost of pursuing such transfers.

Conservation groups testified to the Oregon House's Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee that they feared the bill would be a first step on a path to privatizing public land.

"It's part of a very disturbing trend of slowly chipping away at American's public lands heritage," said Sean Stevens, executive director of the group Oregon Wild.

Stevens pointed to a vote this week by the Oregon State Land Board to move ahead with the sale of the Elliott State Forest. And it comes soon after a Utah congressman, citing public opposition, withdrew a bill to sell 3.3 million acres of public land nationwide.

But the chief sponsor of the Oregon measure, Republican Rep. Carl Wilson of Grants Pass, said privatizing public land isn't his goal.

"I'm certainly not interested in seeing that," Wilson said. "Public land will remain public, and let's bring the management decisions home."

Some Democrats on the panel expressed reservations about the proposal.

"They say be careful what you wish for," Rep. Susan McLain of Hillsboro said. If lands were transferred to state control, she said, "you're also bringing in more responsibility and more needs for more resources" to manage the forests.

The federal government owns more than half of all land in Oregon. The task force would not look at ways for the state to claim ownership of national parks, national monuments and designated wilderness areas.

Wilson, the sponsor, suggested that with Donald Trump in the White House, the time might be right to explore federal-to-state transfers.

"We don't know what this administration is going to be like," Wilson said. "In light of that, I would rather Oregonians be taking care of our forests than Washington, DC."

That argument resonated with committee chair Brian Clem, a Salem Democrat.

"I'd like to get every decision away from Donald Trump right now, honestly," he said. But Clem added he's leaning against the creation of a task force, which would require a fiscal appropriation. Instead, he favored continuing the conversation on a more informal basis.

The bill is not currently scheduled for any additional hearings or votes.

Copyright 2017 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman covers the Oregon state capitol for JPR as part of the Northwest News Network, a group of 12 Northwest public radio organizations which collaborate on regional news coverage. Chris graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He began his career producing arts features for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana and has been a reporter/announcer for NPR station WNIJ in DeKalb, Illinois. Chris has also reported from overseas, filing stories from Iraq, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe and Uganda.
Chris Lehman
Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.