Wyden’s Plan For Revenue Generation from O & C Lands Fails To Solve The Fundamental Problem

On November 26, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) released his plan to generate tax revenue from Oregon and California lands currently under control of the federal Bureau of Land Management. The plan has met with mixed reviews. Counties in Oregon that are desperate to replace lost tax revenue from timber jobs are crossing their fingers, hoping this is their long sought solution. Environmentalists are predictably frothing at the mouth. But the solution proffered only serves to expose the problem in more stark relief: the fact that any of these lands are under federal control is the real problem.

These lands have been intertwined with the federal government since 1860, when 2.4 million acres of federally owned forest lands were granted to the Oregon & California Railroad to encourage economic development. The land was taken back in 1916 after the railroad failed to meet its obligations to sell the land to settlers. In 1937, Congress passed the O&C Lands Act, which set aside the land for sustained economic development:

According to section 1181a of the O&C Act, O&C timberlands are to be managed for “permanent forest production” with timber to be “sold, cut and removed in conformity with the principal [sic] of sustained yield for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply, protecting watersheds, regulating stream flow and contributing to the economic stability of local communities and industries, and providing recreational facilities.”

For about 50 years, this arrangement worked well, driving a vibrant rural economy based on natural resource industries. Starting in the 1980s, however, aggressive litigation by environmental groups ground that production to a virtual standstill. The Wyden bill purports to address this problem, but indications are that the protections against litigation are insufficcient:

Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, who chairs the Association of O&C Counties, on Monday said his group is finding a lot more to dislike about Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden’s plan for managing some 2 million acres of federal forests in western Oregon.

Robertson said his group’s initial review of the 188-page bill produced doubts about whether the bill would really reduce litigation tying up timber sales and produce much in the way of county revenue.

“I have to admit disappointment,” said Robertson, adding in a telephone interview that he thought Wyden’s goal of doubling timber harvests in these federal forests was “very speculative.”

A previously passed bill in the House would open significantly more land to harvesting, producing around five times as much revenue for the affected counties as Wyden’s bill.

Regardless of which bill is ultimately passed, however, the fundamental question remains: Why does any of this land remain under federal control? Aren’t the states far better positioned to manage their own land than the federal government? As Ken Ivory of the American Lands Council points out, “upon being admitted as a state, the federal government promised all new states that it would ‘extinguish title’ (i.e. transfer away title) to all public lands. For all states east of Colorado (and for Hawaii), it has honored this promise.” All states, upon admission to the Union, were given the same promise. In 1828, Congress heard a report from the Public Lands Committee that stated,

“If these lands are to be withheld . . . in vain may the People of these States expect the advantages of well settled neighborhoods, so essential to the education of youth . . . Those States will, for many generations, without some change, be retarded in endeavors to increase their comfort and wealth, by means of works of internal improvements, because they have not the power, incident to all sovereign States, of taxing the soil, to pay for the benefits conferred upon its owner by roads and canals. When these States stipulated not to tax the lands of the United States until they were sold, they rested upon the implied engagement of Congress to cause them to be sold, within a reasonable time. No just equivalent has been given those States for a surrender of an attribute of sovereignty so important to their welfare, and to an equal standing with the original States.”

It would seem that there is no better example of this than the O&C Lands of rural Oregon. We can continue to try to nibble around the edges, working with the federal government to give us as much of a solution as they feel like; or we can take a bold stand and find a solution that lives up to the promise of statehood and generates the maximum amount of local revenue. This is a prime example of why we have states in the first place – local control over land and revenues is far preferable to federal control.