Commission concerned about Moskee purchase details
January 16, 2020
The county commissioners are penning a letter of comment on the state’s plans to purchase a chunk of land in the Moskee. Discussion was held at a public hearing on Wednesday, from which Commissioner Jeanne Whalen took a list of concerns and queries that will be included in the official county response.
The acquisition would see over 4300 acres of private lands return to public ownership and has been in progress now for three years. The State Board of Land Commissioners approved an application for a Forest Legacy Grant in 2016 after the acquisition was proposed by the Forestry Division on the basis that the land is within one of the most productive timber areas in the state; the expectation is that the land will produce revenue through grazing and logging.
During the public hearing, however, the commissioners both expressed and heard a number of concerns.
The commissioners intend to ask for coordination status, which would allow them to represent the county’s interests in the project. Whalen commented that she believes the commission should do this because the county does not want another roadless area – it wants an active piece of public land on which grazing and logging takes place.
The commission was in agreement that it would not like to see the state take a long time to make use of the land and would want to see leases offered as soon as possible.
Describing the multiple use plan associated with the transaction as “sloppily written”, Whalen expressed concern about a stipulation that calls for no surface disturbance on the land.
“That makes it sound like a wilderness, doesn’t it?” commented Commissioner Kelly Dennis. “That statement is pretty questionable.”
Commissioner Fred Devish expressed concern that no disturbance to the surface could impact what equipment could be taken onto the land to fight a fire, or whether the county would be expected to leave it to burn. Whalen wondered if it would even be possible to use the land for recreation, as this could cause disturbance.
Net land and taxes
The commissioners are concerned that the county’s policy is no net gain or loss of public land or reduction in its tax base. Dennis and Whalen both commented that they stand by this land use plan.
A letter penned by Perry Livingston of Crook County Farm Bureau described the acquisition as a dilemma. While the land sale would have a negative effect on property revenue for the county, on the other hand it would be a “bonanza” for land sales if passed into private hands.
According to Sarah Anderson, Crook County Conservation District, the current owner of the land has expressed that he has a subdivision plan in place and three offers in hand in case the state purchase does not go through. If the land is divided into plots as small as five acres, she said, that could be over 900 new pieces of private land in the county.
While carving the land up into private plots could increase property and sales taxes, Livingston’s letter suggested this would still be a burden on the county as the need for schools, social services and other amenities would likely exceed the extra tax. His letter suggested an annual payment from the state to the county to recoup the loss of property tax.
County Assessor Theresa Curren confirmed that forested land of this nature is now considered by the state to be wasteland and is taxed at around $10 per acre. This would not be a huge total loss, the commission agreed.
The county has requested that it be given free easements across the land for two county roads that run across it. The roads have been secured through ongoing negotiations between the county and U.S. Forest Service according to the Forest Road and Trail Act (FRTA); said Whalen, the county will ask that these negotiations be respected so that “the work we’ve done so far is not going to be impeded by what the state is doing”.
According to a comment written by County Attorney Joe Baron, the road is necessary to ensure public access through the land. Whalen explained that, if the decision is made to close the land to public access, the roads would ensure that the public can still get through.
Costs to the county
While the land in question was in private hands, around four to six lease holders used it for grazing purposes. One of those lease holders, present in the audience, confirmed that there is very little fencing on the property and also no water or corrals, both of which are on their own adjacent private land.
The commissioners wondered what fencing would be required if the sale goes through – and who would be responsible for installing it. Dennis also wondered if the state plans to fund adequate weed control on the property, while Whalen suggested that law enforcement would be very difficult on such a large chunk of recreation land.
It is not yet known whether the state intends to lease the land as a single chunk or in small parts. Concerned for the current lease holders, the commissioners asked if they have been given information about how grazing will work if the transaction goes through.
One lease holder present at the hearing stated that they were told their lease had expired as soon as they moved their cows off the land for the year. No mention was made of grandfathering, he said.
If the state intends to offer a single lease, Commissioner Fred Devish wondered if it would be a good idea for the current lease holders to form a grazing association, make a bid together and thus continue to use the land in the same manner they have already been doing.
Dennis also mentioned that he would like to see the current leaseholders somehow given first dibs on the new lease.
With the discussion complete, the commission passed a motion to pre-approve the comment letter to be written by Whalen. The letter will summarize the points brought up in the hearing.
According to the motion, Whalen’s fellow commissioners will see the letter before it is signed using the signature facsimile stamp and sent to the state.