What others say: Oregon counties assert authority over federal lands

  • By The Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard editorial
  • Wednesday, November 22, 2017 11:28am
  • Opinion

People who supported the aims but not the tactics of last year’s armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge think they’ve found a way to gain a greater degree of local control over federal lands. Last week the Crook County commissioners adopted a Natural Resources Policy that asserts a doctrine of “coordination” based on federal law. The doctrine would give the counties what amounts to veto power over federal land management decisions. Supporters of this approach are bound to be disappointed.

Close to half the land in Crook County is managed by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management — and if some of those agencies’ decisions were put to a local vote they’d be soundly defeated. Crook County’s economy has historically depended on logging and ranching, both of which have been curtailed in recent decades by federal environmental and land management laws.

But there’s a reason the agencies’ decisions aren’t subject to local votes: The Forest Service and BLM manage public lands on behalf of all Americans, not just those who live nearby. Crook County can’t dictate how many cattle can graze on BLM rangeland, or how much timber should be logged in the Ochoco National Forest, because citizens in the nation’s 3,141 other counties and parishes also have a right to insist that their ownership interests are protected.

Federal laws governing public lands generally grant local communities a role in decision-making, and federal agencies are required to coordinate their policies with state and local authorities. Crook County has taken this requirement and pushed it beyond the limit. Coordination, the Natural Resources Policy claims, essentially means that federal lands must be managed in ways that reflect local priorities.

Baker County in Eastern Oregon and Owyhee County in Idaho have approved similar policies, and the idea seems likely to spread. Its chief legal theorist is Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen, who visited the Crook County seat of Prineville last March. “The federal statutes are so broad that it’s actually not that hard to write a local land use plan that is completely in line with federal statutes,” The (Portland) Oregonian quoted her as saying. Budd-Falen was a member of President Trump’s transition team, and her name is mentioned as a potential nominee to lead the BLM.

Even as head of the BLM, Budd-Falen would be stymied in any attempt to surrender much of her agency’s authority to local governments. In a landmark 1987 decision, Granite Rock vs. California Coastal Commission, the Supreme Court upheld federal supremacy in the management of federal lands. Neither the White House nor Congress is likely to pursue an erosion of this supremacy — whether they favor preservation or exploitation of natural resources on public lands, the executive and legislative branches don’t want their priorities vetoed at the local level.

Coordination can and does occur in many forms of federal land-use planning. Examples include the collaborative plans developed for both the Malheur refuge and the Ochoco forest. These plans attempt to balance competing interests — a difficult but often fruitful effort that Crook and other counties should continue to pursue.

— The Eugene Register-Guard,

Nov. 14

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