This land is their land


Local leaders have faced financial issues due to the fact that much of Crook County is federally owned

Photo Credit: SCOTT STAATS - A view of the Ochoco National Forest

Nearly half of all land in Crook County is owned by the federal government.

In some states, and even in some Oregon counties, this would be cause for concern and even contention. Occasionally emotions reach the boiling point, as in the recent confrontation between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Even though local relationships are generally amicable, there are some who feel federal agencies – especially the Forest Service and BLM – really aren’t contributing their fair share.

Crook County Sheriff Jim Hensley has taken his concerns to the next level.

“What I’ve said to the senator (Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore) and the congressman (Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore), and other government leaders, is that if the federal government were to take and pay a property tax on the lands that are in this county, like other people that have forest land that is privately owned, that would generate enough revenue for this county, and counties statewide, to have more funds available to them to provide services to the residents.”

Hensley said he’s seen a steady decrease in federal funding, and that it’s hampering his ability to patrol and respond to incidents on federal land, as well as affecting his ongoing readiness for search and rescue operations.

“With our thin resources here, we don’t adequately have the funds to patrol the forest and deal with issues that happen there,” he said. “If a citizen’s in danger, we respond. But if it’s somebody damaging Forest Service property, they’re (Forest Service law enforcement) on their own.”

Two federal funds

According to Hensley, the sheriff’s office receives federal funding from two sources: PILT and Secure Rural Schools.

The PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) program provides payments to local governments that help offset losses in property taxes due to non-taxable Federal lands within their boundaries. The sheriff’s office is allocated a portion of this funding. According to Crook County Treasurer Kathy Gray, the county received a total of $653,487 this fiscal year, which “for some reason” is more than twice the amount allocated in 2013. This is still less than the $824,141 received in 2002, which was reduced by nearly 80 percent the following year.

“That’s a problem because those funds were very, very discretionary,” observed Crook County Judge Mike McCabe. “They were probably the only true discretionary funds we had in the county – they could be used for anything. It was pretty tough for a while.”

“Unfortunately, congress doesn’t always fully fund the PILT payments,” said Carol Benkosky, district manager for the local BLM office. “I believe they’ve done a fairly good job doing that the last two years, but I’m sure it’s very difficult for the counties, not knowing whether that’s a reliable source or not.”

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act has its origins in the Act of May 23, 1908 (16 USC 500), which directed the Secretary of the Treasury to make annual payments to the states based on national forest receipts. It has been amended several times since and now requires annual reauthorization.

In Crook County, Secure Rural Schools funding for this fiscal year is $1.671 million dollars, according to Gray, 69 percent of which is federally designated for the county road program, 23 percent to the schools, and the remaining 8 percent is called “Title III.” Title III funds can only be used for wildfire-related protection plans and associated activities, and for emergency services, including SAR that is paid for by the county and performed on the national forest.

The Title III funding amounts to $127,180 this year, and represents a slow but steady decrease from 2008, when it was more than $300,000. Overall, Secure Rural Schools funding is 51 percent of what it was only 10 years ago.

“They keep authorizing the Secure Rural Schools funding, which is OK,” said McCabe, “but then they decrease it by 5 percent every year, and certainly none of our costs have gone down.”

Hensley said that when he took office in 2011, Title III funded a forest deputy. That position went away a couple of years ago.

“That money’s dwindled down to where there just isn’t that much in there,” he said.

The Forest Service has also changed the rules on how Title III can be spent, Hensley said. In the past, county sheriffs were able to purchase SAR equipment – snowmobiles, ATVs, trailers – to be better prepared to respond to emergencies on the national forest.

Not so today.

“We can use this money (only) for expenses related to that (specific) search,” he explained. “We can’t use any of that money, any more, to purchase equipment to be able to respond to those emergencies. Some of the sheriffs in Oregon are complaining that they can’t even use that money to train their people.”

The value of federal land

As supervisor of the Ochoco National Forest, Kate Klein understands the dilemma faced by the county, especially related to a much-reduced timber industry, lost jobs, and a diminishing Secure Rural Schools allocation.

“The community had five sawmills up until the early 2000s,” she said, “and now the community has no primary sawmills. So it has had an impact for sure.”

Still, the forest benefits local residents in many ways beyond a direct economic contribution, she said, including providing recreation, livestock grazing, and wildlife habitat values. Fire season results in increased economic activity as a result of the local helibase and other expenditures, and many contracts are offered to local contractors, such as for forest thinning, restoration and road work.

“Generally speaking,” she said, “that land is open for people to visit, to recreate in, to cut firewood, to enjoy as individuals, which is an asset many places do not have. There’s all kinds of benefits – having clean air and clean water – that come from having public land that’s not heavily developed. It’s certainly an asset.”

Benkosky stressed the value of partnerships the BLM has with local agencies, including weed control, mercury clean-up on Barnes Butte, communication sites, and fire suppression.

“If we weren’t here, that would really be completely up to the county to fight those fires with what resources they have.”

She also said the BLM actively supports the sheriff’s office, both with the presence of a ranger when there is a need on non-federal land, and monetarily from the agency’s budget. This includes funding to patrol BLM campgrounds and other lands during certain times of the year, and some funding for marijuana eradication, according to Hensley.

“Our folks do support and respond to things that happen off of federal land, just as they support us,” Benkosky said. “While that’s not guaranteed funding, we’ve been able to do it for quite a few years now.”

As with Klein, Benkosky emphasized the value of accessible federal land for recreation and the resultant increase in local tourism. McCabe acknowledged this value to the community, and said he certainly appreciates it, but also said Crook County needs more than just tourism dollars.

“It doesn’t generate the kind of funding that we need to keep our roads and our infrastructure up,” he said.

“I just feel that yes, the federal government , if they have that much land, then yes, they should do that, help pay and support the services that are needed in a community to help respond to problems on their land,” concluded Hensley. “If that land was not owned by the federal government, and it was owned by private parties, look at what the revenue would be to assist the county with the resources. That’s huge.”

In acres, county land ownership breakdown

Federal government: 942,750, 49.31%

BLM: 499,580, 26.13%

BOR: 8,150, 0.43%

USFS: 435,020, 22.75%

State of Oregon: 15,880, 0.83%

Crook County: 3,870, 0.2%

Private/other: 949,370, 49.66%

TOTAL 1,911,870

Source: Crook County GIS