Oregon State Senator questions accepting federal grants to take more land out of 'traditional' use - Nature Conservancy blasts him for decision
State Sen. Ken Messerle, (R-OR), doubts it is appropriate to accept grants from the federal government, especially when it involves placing more land out of reach of development or traditional use.
It is a stance that has earned him the contempt of several local governments and the head of Oregon’s Nature Conservancy.
Oregon was in line to receive $687,000 to place 200 acres of private woodlands into a conservation easement.
Another deal would have meant $1 million for a conservation easement of 1,240 acres of forest and savanna lands.
The grants were pending subject to legislative action by the state legislature and now, thanks to Sen. Messerle’s maneuvers, the deadline has passed and the money is no longer available.
“We’re the laughingstock of the Forest Service in Washington, D.C.” said Hilary Abraham of TNC (The Nature Conservancy). “They’ve never heard of a state rejecting federal grants before.”
Messerle expressed concerns that beneficial uses of the land would be forbidden.“Oregon is over 60 per cent publicly owned now. How far do we want to go down that line? We have to worry about our economy too.”
Senator Messerle should be commended for his tough stance against the very organized and well funded Nature Conservancy.
Besides, the grant wasn’t “free” money, it’s our tax dollars.
More state legislators need to follow Sen. Messerle’s lead.
Critic Blames Conservative Oregon Lawmakers for Losing Land-Preservation Grant
So did Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Springfield and Gordon Smith, Oregon's Republican U.S. senator.
The Bush administration had authorized the $1 million Forest Legacy Program Grant to buy the land, which includes the Ridgeline Trail.
And current landowner Ed Miesen had testified before lawmakers in February that he wanted the deal to go through.
But state Sen. Ken Messerle, a Coos Bay Republican who heads the legislative budget panel and can approve or block the grant, had concerns.
Now, after the passage of Friday's deadline for legislative authorization, it appears the grant for the land will no longer be available, said Hilary Abraham, lobbyist of the Nature Conservancy of Oregon.
It could be the same story for a $1 million grant secured from the same federal program to acquire a conservation easement on 1,240 acres of forest, oak woodland and savanna in the Coburg Hills -- a grant that's considered no longer available because of inaction by the Legislature.
The city of Springfield had offered a $1.5 million match for the acquisition.
"We're the laughingstock of the Forest Service in Washington, D.C.," Abraham said in reference to the federal agency that administers the Forest Legacy Program. "They've never heard of a state rejecting federal grants before."
She also cited a $995,000 grant that had been earmarked for preservation of a Siuslaw River estuary near Florence but was withdrawn for the same reason by the U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service.
Abraham and other critics blamed the holdup on Messerle and other rural conservatives on the Natural Resources Subcommittee of the Joint Ways & Means Committee.
Messerle said he had concerns about what he said was a lack of "policy discussion" on whether it was appropriate for the state to get involved with the placing of forestland in public trust.
Messerle said his overriding concern was that purchasing the land with federal money -- even from willing sellers, as is the case with the south Eugene hills and Coburg Hills tracts -- would mean the land would no longer be available for farming, logging or developments such as housing subdivisions.
"Oregon is over 60 percent publicly owned now," Messerle said. "How far do we want to go down that line? We have to worry about our economy, too."
Sen. Frank Shields, a Portland Democrat and chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said he was upset at Messerle's comments that the budget panel couldn't act on the issue until Shields' committee had worked out the policy side of the land-acquisition issue.
"This is not new," said Shields, who produced two memos, dated May 15 and April 17, as proof that he and other lawmakers had fully vetted the policy implications of approving the federally funded land preservation projects.
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