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Federal land transfer to Oregon that’s over 150 years overdue – since statehood – could finally be finished soon

(Update: Adding video, comments from Department of State Lands)

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – If you visit an open piece of land anywhere in Oregon, be it scenic or mundane, and can’t tell whether it’s public or private – and if it's public, what federal, state or local agencies manage it on behalf of the public – you’re likely far from alone.

But a little-noticed, recently published legal notice about a planned 520-acre federal-to-state land transfer in Deschutes County reflects a little-known piece of long-unfinished business that actually dates back 165 years – to the birth of Oregon – and may soon be finally finished.

"For many decades, the federal government had asserted that their obligations had been fulfilled. And that they had provided all of the lands owed to the state of Oregon." said Amber McKernan, real property program manager for the Department of State Lands. "But there was a lawsuit in the 1990s that resulted in an agreement that the BLM, or the federal government did still owe the land to the state of Oregon."

When Oregon became a state, back in 1859, the federal government granted Sections 16 and 36 of every township to the state, for the support of its public schools.  However, not all of those lands were available “because the land was already settled or otherwise reserved,” DSL said in a March 22 letter to interested parties.

“Therefore, the federal government was required to provide other lands in lieu of Sections 16 and 36,” it said. “There remain approximately 1,400 acres of these ‘in lieu’ lands owed to Oregon from the federal government.”

Really? Owed since Oregon’s Statehood Act? What took so very long?

The letter doesn’t say, but it does say that the federal Bureau of Land Management is working with DSL to finally identify and transfer those owed, “in lieu” lands to the state.

The DSL letter was accompanied by the BLM's “proposed classification decision,” which identified two parcels in Deschutes County as meeting the criteria to proceed. One, of 80 acres, is located in La Pine, north of Burgess Road and east of Huntington Road. The other, larger parcel, of 440 acres, is several miles east of Bend, north of Rickard Road, and west of Bozeman Trail.

"The 80-acre parcel that's near La Pine is actually inside the La Pine urban growth boundary. So we would look at selling in the future for development. The parcel east of Bend is outside the urban growth boundary, so the property we would look at maintaining ownership of and leasing to generate revenue." said McKernan.

The BLM said it “will examine these lands for evidence of prior valid rights or other statutory constraints that would bar transfer.” Those asserting a claim to or interest in the lands can file that claim within 45 days of the notice being issued.

Officials listed eight parties who hold valid leases, permits or rights of way on the properties: Avion Water Co., Bend Broadband, Central Electric Cooperative, CenturyLink, the city of La Pine, Deschutes County, Midstate Electric Cooperative and Qwest Corp.

The notice said rights-of-way granted by BLM will transfer with the land, while state law and DSL procedures provide for offering BLM grazing permit, license and leaseholders the first right to lease lands transferred to the state, when the BLM permits end.

Rickard Road resident Gary Moore, who received the state notice, shared his concerns Sunday on the Nextdoor neighborhood social media app, wanting to make others aware of the public comment period that ends June 18.

Moore wrote that while he understands why it makes sense to “rightfully” transfer the lands to the state, “the repercussions scare hell out of me.”

Moore pointed out that one of the county’s earlier potential landfill sites was “in our backyard,” but they “managed to dodge that bullet,” And he's concerned the state could then turn the land over to the county, which “really scares me.”

Amid recent exceptions to urban growth boundary laws to address the state’s affordable housing crisis, Moore said those land-use laws also have “protected those of us living on the outer limits of Bend next to BLM lands.” And he’s worried that if the county were to acquire the land, “we need to be prepared for development of these lands. We need to speak up now to direct this inevitable development.”

Earlier this year, the BLM identified about 160 acres of forestland properties in Linn County as part of the effort to transfer to the state the federal land it's been owed for a very long time. The public comment period for that “in lieu” lands transfer ends April 9, according to DSL's land sales and exchanges web page.

When the state was admitted to the Union, Congress granted nearly 3.4 million acres of land to help fund schools, and about 680,000 acres of “school lands” remain in state ownership today, overseen by the State Land Board.

As for the lands identified for possible transfer to the state, McKernan said, "There many different uses that can occur on state lands that we have administrative rules for, so we don't know what that looks like yet. It's still something that we're still evaluating."

DSL manages the lands, leasing and selling property in an effort to generate revenue for Oregon’s Common School Fund, which for the current school year distributed a record $74.2 million to Oregon’s K-12 public school districts.

The state treasurer and Oregon Investment Council invest the Common School Fund, which has seen its value range from $600 million to more than $2 billion in recent years, depending on market conditions.

Article Topic Follows: Government-politics

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Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.

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Isabella Warren

Isabella Warren is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Isabellahere.


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