By February 16, 2017 at 2:46 PM
House Bill 2365 is what's known as a message bill, a legislative way for lawmakers to take a stand, even though their proposal won't pass. It's walking dead.
The bill would establish a task force to study transferring most of Oregon's federal land to state control. Places like the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and the Mount Hood National Forest would move a step closer to being owned by a state already on the brink of selling public land.
But there it was Thursday morning in Salem, being discussed in Hearing Room D of the Oregon Capitol after Rep. Brian Clem, a Salem Democrat who chairs the Agriculture Committee, called a public hearing.
What surprised conservation groups who came to speak in opposition was not the idea - similar bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the West. It was that a Democrat granted a public forum to what they described as a fringe, far-right idea promoted by Ammon Bundy and his family. The Bundys led the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.
"That the Oregon legislature would consider HB 2365 to us is deeply troubling," Sean Stevens, the executive director of Oregon Wild, told lawmakers. "We're just a year removed from the armed occupation of the Malheur refuge. The Bundys preached a warped view of America's public land. HB 2365 appears to embrace the idea of the Bundys."
In the West, where the federal government is the majority landowner, public lands have been a target of the right for decades.
But the fight over their fate took on new life after the Malheur occupation, with the Republican Party including the conveyance of federal land to local control in its national platform. A Utah Republican congressman, Jason Chaffetz, recently withdrew a bill targeting the sale of federal lands in Oregon and elsewhere in the West amid an outcry from hunters and anglers. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has signaled that it is not interested in privatizing public lands.
Rep. Carl Wilson, a Josephine County Republican who sponsored HB 2365, told lawmakers Thursday that the federal forests in his district are poorly managed, fire-prone and beset by litigation. He said he thought Oregon state agencies could exercise a "much more loving, caring oversight."
"We would make the decisions in Salem, rather than Washington, D.C.," he said. "I just have to believe we would do a better job. We would care more."
Transferring federal timberland to state control would subject it to logging laws that are less environmentally protective than federal rules, which prohibit practices like the aerial spraying of herbicides on clear cuts. Oregon's aerial spray laws are the weakest on the West Coast.
Wilson said he only wanted to study the question of how Oregon could steward federal land if the legal hurdles were cleared, something scholars say there is no chance of happening.
"I think it would be fun just to find out what it would be like," Wilson said.
Michael Blumm, a Lewis & Clark Law School professor who studies public lands and did not attend the hearing, said the state has no legal authority to demand the federal government hand over its land. "The task force would be a whole lot better off studying things like why federal public lands produce better water quality and species protection than state lands do," Blumm said.
He said Clem's decision to hold a hearing on the idea was curious. "It does seem surprising to me that he would do this, because it does fan the flames," Blumm said.
The protest Thursday morning from conservation groups did not go unnoticed by Democratic lawmakers, who criticized the advocates for criticizing them. Said Rep. Susan McLain, a Hillsboro Democrat, "I don't like the way some people were in my mind impinging the idea that we would even listen to a colleague."
Stevens said in a later interview that he worried the hearing helped legitimize the Malheur occupiers' anti-government philosophy. Lawmakers should be considering resolutions endorsing the value of federal public lands, he said, not debating their divestment.
"There are thousands of bills introduced every year. Brian Clem has a choice of what he wants to hear," Stevens said. "This is providing some imprimatur of authority to ideas that should be in an extreme box."
Clem acknowledged the hearing was poorly timed. He should've waited a month, he said, or done it a week earlier. Instead, it was held two days after another Oregon Democrat, state Treasurer Tobias Read, voted to support the privatization of the Elliott State Forest, an 82,500-acre parcel in the Coast Range northeast of Coos Bay.
The state is constitutionally obligated to manage the Elliott to benefit schools, and timber revenue from the land has dropped after environmental lawsuits. But when Read rejected Gov. Kate Brown's proposal for retaining public ownership on Tuesday, it drew an immediate rebuke from environmental groups, who said he had betrayed their support.
Clem said he was staunchly opposed to the Bundys' philosophy, calling them "whack jobs that needed to be arrested." He said there was "no chance" that he'd move HB 2365 out of committee. His only interest in federal land, he said, is if it's ever put for sale, like the privately owned Klamath Falls property that became the Gilchrist State Forest.
Clem said he held the hearing because his committee had the time this early in the legislative session. A recent meeting adjourned 45 minutes early, he said, because lawmakers ran out of bills to discuss. "Until we have a problem, I'm not rationing anybody," he said.
"To be anti-public hearing because it may legitimize something is a horrible policy for us to consider," Clem said. "That's just anti-democratic. It sounds very Trump-like, honestly."
-- Rob Davis