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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

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

Bureau of Land Management
Flickr -
File photo of Wildwood Recreation Site near Welches, Oregon. Some Oregon lawmakers want to study whether the state should try to take control of federal lands.

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.