The United States
government owns more than 55 percent of all the acreage
in Oregon. A total of more than 53,000 square miles, or
34 million acres, is held in federal title. Oregon has
the fifth highest federal ownership percentage among all
of the 13 Western states.
So what is wrong with
this massive federal ownership of Oregon land and how
did it happen?
The United States
Constitution prohibits the states from imposing or
collecting taxes on property owned by the federal
government. More than half of the landmass of the state
of Oregon is thereby excluded from Oregonís taxing
authority. Any existing or potential improvements
located on that 53,000 square miles of federal land is
also exempt from property taxation. This situation
obviously creates a huge barrier to the adequate funding
for Oregonís schools, public safety, transportation
infrastructure, and care for our most vulnerable
Further, the federal
ownership of more than half of the landmass of Oregon
functionally excludes it from economic development.
Virtually all of Oregonís businesses, jobs, wealth and
infrastructure are found on the 40 percent of Oregonís
landmass that is privately owned. Conversely, virtually
none is found on the 34 million acres of federally owned
land. The burden of the cost of State and local
government in Oregon is borne by the taxation of less
than half of the lands of the state.
The management and the
use of federal land for any purpose are controlled by
the United States government. Laws and regulations
regarding the management and use of the land are
generally made by elected and appointed people who have
little or no knowledge of the land or of its appropriate
use. The certain result is that more than half of the
land in Oregon has been severely mismanaged for decades.
Further, a constant
litany of new rules and regulations has sequentially
restricted public access to the federally owned lands
creating ever-enlarging wilderness servitudes. Logging
on federal forests has been reduced by nearly 95 percent
during the past 25 years. Livestock pasturing on federal
owned rangeland is being greatly restricted to the point
of exclusion in many areas. Mining on mineral-rich
federal property has been virtually eliminated.
Exploration and development of oil and gas deposits on
federal property has been greatly curtailed.
The new imperative for
federal land appears to be to prohibit public trespass
for any reason in order to protect, conserve and
preserve our national heritage. That new imperative
fails to recognize the reality that unmanaged land
always returns to disarray, chaos and decay. The certain
result has been massive forest and rangeland fires that
are continuing to destroy that heritage for future
Perhaps the strongest
argument against the federal ownership of land within
Oregonís borders is that the federal ownership is
arguably unconstitutional. Each state was admitted into
the union on equal footing. Each state Enabling Act
contains virtually the same language. Upon admission,
each state ceded land that was not privately owned to
the federal government with the contractual expectation
that, with few exceptions, the federal government would
sell that previously unclaimed land into private
ownership. The alleged purpose of the transfer of title
to the federal government was to establish unobstructed
ownership to facilitate the future sale of the land.
The compacts stipulated
that five percent of the net proceeds of the sale of the
unclaimed land would be returned to the state. Further,
the compacts provide that the title of any land not
disposed of to the private sector would be returned to
the state for the purpose of supporting the education of
its citizens. The compacts do not provide for or
envision perpetual federal ownership of massive tracts
of land within the borders of the several states.
has failed to fulfill its contractual promise to dispose
of the public lands in the Western states.
The concept of the
federal government holding public lands in trust dates
back to 1780. During the Revolutionary War, seven states
pledged their claims over all the western land to the
confederated government for the sole purposes of
creating distinct republican states with the same
rights, freedom, independence and sovereignty as the
other states and to use any proceeds from the sale of
the western lands to pay the debts from the Revolution.
Oregon was admitted to
the union by an 1859 act of Congress following a state
constitutional convention held in 1857. Although it did
not have an enabling act, the state was admitted to the
union with the same rights and privileges as all of the
The United States
pledged in the state Enabling Acts to sell the public
lands within the borders of the new state that were
retained by the federal government at statehood. It
further pledged to divide the proceeds of the sale with
The pledge was generally
honored in the Midwest and Plains states where the
federal government retains little land in federal title.
The promise was generally broken following the admission
of each of the 13 Western states where the federal
government retains the title to more than half of the
land in Oregon and to as much as 87 percent of the land
Further the federal
government explicitly began to renege on its promise
when Congress enacted the 1920 federal Mineral Lease
Act. That public law continued to provide 100 percent of
mineral royalties to states east of Colorado, but
restricted mineral royalties to 48 percent for the
failure to keep its word continued with the 1976
enactment of the Federal Lands Policy Management Act (FLPMA).
That act unilaterally changed the 200 year-old
obligation by retaining the public lands in federal
ownership forever! The Congressional promises in FLPMA
included management of the federal lands for multiple
use and sustained yield with local planning. It also
promised to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes to compensate
the states for perpetual loss of property tax revenues.
Those payments turned out to be about 13 percent of the
average taxable value of the land. The pledge for
multiple use, sustained yield, and local planning appear
to be forgotten.
The 1993 Northwest
Forest Plan severely restricted timber harvest on
federal forest land. In fact, the Act has resulted in a
nearly 95 percent reduction of timber harvest on
federally owned land. The precipitous reduction in
timber harvest resulted in the 2000 enactment of Secure
Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act
(SRS). The payments received by the states through the
SRS were a small fraction of the revenues that local
communities had generated from harvesting and processing
timber from federal lands. Congress now appears to
consider the SRS payments as state entitlements. They
have been sequentially reduced and have been on annual
ďlife supportĒ for several years.
The United States
Supreme Court established the opportunity to reverse
this absurd slide into total state subservience to the
federal government in its 2009 decision in Hawaii v.
Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The Court ruled unanimously
that Congress does not have authority to unilaterally
change or diminish the unique sovereign character of the
admission of a state to the union. If Congress did have
the authority to unilaterally alter the terms of
statehood, states would cease to be states and would
become mere administrative subdivisions of an
all-powerful national government.
Five western states have
now passed legislation to analyze the process for the
transfer of public lands to willing western states. The
state of Oregon should pass legislation to join Idaho,
Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming in that analysis. To
continue to expect Congress to either keep its promises,
or change its policies, appears to be a foolís errand.
Please remember, if we do
not stand up for rural Oregon no one will.