A draft bill recently released by U.S. Representative Greg Walden (R-OR) proposes to dispose of hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest land in Oregon’s Klamath River Basin so that it can be clear-cut or auctioned off to the highest bidder.
The proposal, which is the latest in a series of attempts by right-wing politicians to seize or sell-off national public lands, is so controversial that observers say it could spark a renewed water war in Rep. Walden’s home state of Oregon.
The Klamath Basin, a 15,000-plus square mile river basin spanning regions of both Oregon and California, has long been the site of fierce disputes over the allocation of scarce water supplies and the collapse of fisheries and wildlife habitat.
Over the past several years, however, a wide range of stakeholders — including farmers, tribes, landowners, conservationists, and national, state, and local governments — engaged in a collaborative process aimed at resolving the decades-long Klamath water crisis and restoring economic stability and environmental integrity to the basin. These negotiations resulted in three bipartisan agreements which seek to remove four hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River, promote water quality and wildlife restoration, and provide local farmers, businesses and communities with economic stability and certainty.
Set to expire at the end of the month, the agreements need federal authorization to take effect. A bill from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) would codify all three of the agreements, but has been stalled since its introduction in January.
Congressman Walden’s draft bill, which he circulated just four weeks before the settlement is set to expire, would undermine these locally-driven agreements by eliminating the requirements that the dams be removed and giving away massive stretches of the Winema-Fremont National Forest and the Klamath National Forest. The bill would transfer 200,000 acres of these national public lands — 100,000 each to Klamath and Siskiyou counties — so that they could be clear-cut by logging companies or sold to the highest bidder.
“The proposed transfer of U.S. Forest Service lands away from public lands to timber development is nothing short of a land grab for the benefit of private corporations at the expense of Oregon sportsmen and women,” Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association said in a letter to the editor published in the Oregonian. “Public lands belong to all of us and should not be given away.”
Not only are these types of public land takeovers unpopular among Western voters, they can impact access to shared public lands, and “result in unsustainable logging practices and water quality impairment,” according to Klamath Riverkeeper Executive Director Konrad Fisher.
Under the Walden bill, Klamath and Siskiyou counties would be forced to take on the financial obligations of managing the forest lands that would be transferred to their control, including the costs of fighting wildfires and cleaning up abandoned mines. Because county governments are required to balance their budgets, if they are not able to pay these costs they would either need to raise taxes or sell off the lands for private use or development.
The Walden proposal to dispose of public lands is the second such proposal that has surfaced in Oregon this year. The state recently approved the sale of the 140-square-mile Elliot State Forest after the State Land Board determined it was unable to generate a sufficient profit from logging in the area to adequately protect fish and wildlife habitat.
In addition to its controversial provisions to dispose of national forests, Walden’s bill — even when measured by his own previous statements — would destroy the consensus that has been reached on the need to remove the Klamath dams, undermine the agreements, and create uncertainty for a wide range of water users. In October, the Congressman claimed that “there are really no alternatives [to dam removal] unless you want to blow the whole agreement apart and give up on water certainty for agriculture.” Yet in releasing his draft bill Walden notes that it does “not authorize, fund or expedite federal dam removal.” By eliminating the requirements that the dams be removed, Walden’s proposal could leave the region facing extreme water and economic uncertainty for agriculture, irrigation, fisheries, tribes, and wildlife.
The draft bill has left many who participated in the Klamath Basin negotiation processes unhappy.
“The draft bill [Congressman Walden] released today leaves out dam removal and instead replaces it with a giveaway of public lands,” Josh Saxon, Councilman of the Karuk Tribe, said in a statement. “Communities in the basin left partisanship at the door to hammer out a solution. Mr. Walden must do the same.”
Jenny Rowland is the Research and Advocacy Associate for the Public Lands Project at Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter @jennyhrowland