County in Oregon asserts greater role in use of federal land

Recently adopted policy stresses value of economic activity on federal lands

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PRINEVILLE, Ore. — Encouraged by the Trump administration’s pro-development policies, an Oregon county wants to take some control over federal lands that cover half of the high desert, mountains and forests within its borders.

The three-member Crook County Court governing body unanimously approved the Natural Resources Policy after a public meeting Wednesday in which people spoke passionately for and against the policy.

A sign at the building’s entrance asked attendees to leave their weapons in their cars, and they were told by County Judge Seth Crawford to be respectful of each other. Crawford is the elected county administrator, not a courtroom judge.

The policy notes that “timber harvest, ranching, farming, and mining are the lifeblood of Crook County’s economy” and that “humans are entitled to an equal opportunity to use federal and private lands for both recreation and economic growth.”

At least two other counties — Owyhee County in Idaho and Baker County in Oregon — have enacted similar provisions.

The Crook County policy was drafted by a political action committee created by a group known as Central Oregon Patriots that backed Crawford in the election a year ago. His rival had opposed an earlier version of the land-use plan.

Patrick Lair, a spokesman for the Ochoco National Forest, said the Forest Service would have to wait and see how the county pursues the new policy. The county’s opinions are valued but are just a part of federal considerations, he said.

“As a federal agency, we have obligations to take input from all citizens and stakeholders, not just those who live closest,” Lair said.

The 1,330 square-mile national forest features stands of majestic Ponderosa pines that were once used to feed five sawmills. All the mills were shuttered years ago as logging took a plunge.

County Commissioner Jerry Brummer said after the meeting that he believes the Trump administration will be receptive to the county’s attempt to assert its authority in helping manage federal lands.

“We’ve got to go up the ladder. A lot of this is policy change,” Brummer said.

Crook County Court previously considered the policy more than a year ago — before elections shifted the political landscape. Federal Bureau of Land Management district head Carol Benkosky warned it would create an adversarial relationship with federal agencies.

Since then, Wyoming lawyer Karen Budd-Falen, a key figure in the county supremacy movement, advised the county about modifying the plan.

Budd-Falen served on President Donald Trump’s transition team and has been mentioned as a possible nominee to lead the Bureau of Land Management.

The movement that Budd-Falen has championed since the 1980s pushed to ensure federal land managers’ plans were consistent with the “customs and cultures” of the counties in which the federal lands were located, said R. McGreggor Cawley, a professor of environmental politics and public administration at the University of Wyoming.

Opponents of the Crook County policy predicted federal agencies will ignore it, and they fear it could spark an armed takeover such as the one at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge two years ago.

Steve Forrester, who had a career in forestry products and is now city manager of Prineville, the county seat, said he favors the new policy.

“If you don’t communicate and educate, you’re going to get run over,” he said.

The new policy takes effect in 120 days.