CANYON CITY - Lightning strikes caused forest fires that consumed nearly 50,000 acres in Grant County this summer.
County commissioner Leonard Trafton said lightning would need to strike more than twice for the U.S. Congress to heed a pair of ballot measures which, in the wake of the summer's fires, seek local control of federal forest lands.
"There's no way that Congress is going to deed over the Malheur National Forest to the Grant County Court," Trafton told measure supporters at a Sept. 17 meeting.
However, Grant County Judge Dennis Reynolds agreed to meet with proponents and craft a resolution that the County Court can discuss and decide whether to pass as a token of support for the ballot measures.
Dave Traylor of Mt. Vernon, flanked by three other local-control advocates, appealed to the County Court to support ballot measures destined for a public vote in the Nov. 5 general election. A pair of likeminded initiatives crafted by Traylor and Nick Sheedy ask voters to seek congressional authority to take control of federal forests and elect a commission to run them. Sheedy's resolution asks voters to "lawfully petition the United States Congress to dispose of all land in the public domain in Grant County, in the State of Oregon, and transfer title of said land to Grant County."
Traylor's initiative declares: "The People of Grant County, acting out of love for our way of life, the health of our communities and our natural environment, and with the desire to live in harmony and prosperity, shall assume the responsibility to manage public lands within Grant County by creating a commission comprised of seven commissioners to be elected at-large by the People of Grant County. The commission shall be called the Grant County Public Forest Commission and shall have jurisdiction to create and administer policies for lands and natural resources in the Public Domain within Grant County."
An air of urgency pervaded Traylor's presentation to the County Court.
"We can't wait for the federal government," he said, asserting that the likelihood of future fires places human safety, as well as the environment, at risk.
When questioned, Traylor said the local-control effort would be modeled after a briefly instituted citizens' salvage program. That program, when conducted on the Long Creek Ranger District of the Malheur National Forest, brought in $262,000 to the Forest Service with "negligible expense" in terms of administration, Traylor said. "If anything's going to happen, we've got to make it happen ourselves," he said.
However, Trafton scoffed at the notion that the measures would yield results.
"You're just wishing on a star," he said.
Reynolds agreed that the acquisition of federal land represents a major hurdle.
"The first big challenge I see," he said, "is getting the lands conveyed."
Reynolds also urged more precise language from the framers to inform the public of the measures' actual intent. Some critics have charged that the terminology "public lands" unintentionally incorporates cities, schools and even county property.
Meanwhile, Reynolds admitted to being "stuck in the system," alluding to his continued efforts to cooperate with the Forest Service on fuels-reduction projects. He voiced mixed feelings about a federal approach to project scoping which he said includes environmental groups vocally opposed to action. However, Reynolds said this self-defeating process is being replaced by a strategy of exerting pressure on key decision-makers.
"What seems to be working is when people go and get their legislators and their congressional people by the throat and say, 'You're going to work for me,'" he said.
"This will get them by the throat," Traylor responded of the ballot measures.
Traylor downplayed the specter of federal marshals arresting citizens should they try to log on federal lands without permission. He said this summer's catastrophic fires have changed the mood in the West.
As for the ballot measures themselves, he predicted a landslide victory.
"These issues will pass. That's pretty much a foregone conclusion," he vowed.