Committee looking into land buys



— In the wake of the Carlton Complex wildfires this summer, the Legislature is taking a hard look at state agency land ownership and management practices.

Local officials have been contending for years that the state cannot manage public lands it holds title to in Okanogan and Ferry counties. They claim that state agencies stack the deck to obtain taxpayer dollars to continue massive land acquisitions.

But with more than 150 homeowners seeking compensation from the state due to this summer’s wildfires — which started on public lands managed mostly by the state — lawmakers are stepping up efforts to require more comprehensive economic analysis of the impact of transferring land from private to public ownership.

The state Parks and Recreation Commission, Department of Natural Resources, Recreation and Conservation Office, and Department of Fish and Wildlife will be under the most scrutiny.

With the Legislature having convened little more than a week ago, already lawmakers in the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee are calling for changes in the way the aforementioned and other state agencies analyze, justify and manage land acquisitions.

A preliminary report released last week found that heretofore the agencies have failed to link land acquisitions with actual outcomes for land management and future costs. In short, the committee’s preliminary report notes that those agencies purport to purchase land for necessary conservation efforts. But after land is purchased, they failed to follow through on many of the management practices necessary to reach the goals outlined in the reasoning for acquisitions.

The report found that most agencies’ land purchase reports were only partially linked to management practices and anticipated outcomes. When it comes to trust lands, the committee’s report found there was not any effort to link transfers to future costs. Meanwhile, trust land transfers were only partially linked to land management plans and projected outcomes.

Furthermore, the report found the Recreation and Conservation Office, which provides funding for many land acquisitions, completely failed to link projects to management plans, projected outcomes.

The report found the agencies have traditionally presented initial costs of land acquisitions and management to funding authorities, but failed to extrapolate future years’ costs to maintain and manage habitat and other amenities, such as trails and other public access points.

The preliminary report also found that state agencies aren’t on the same page when it comes to providing legislative authorities — and the public — with information on acquisitions, future costs, management practices and comparison of expectations and actual outcomes. To rectify that situation, the committee is developing a policy to require all state agencies buying land to comply with the same funding request and follow-through guidelines. That proposal is expected to be implemented and enforced by Jan. 1, 2016.

Lawmakers want to keep tabs on land acquisitions and costs. To do so, they will be requiring a monitoring report, according to the report.

The proposed monitoring report will compare proposed land acquisitions with actual acquisitions. It will require maps and identify future payments in lieu of taxes to municipal governments.

But that report doesn’t go far enough in ensuring that public tax dollars are well-spent and public lands appropriately managed. The report will not require a detailed examination of the outcomes, a key component to determining the true economic impact. And that’s something that will have to be addressed if state agencies are allowed to continue to acquire massive tracts of land.

Not sure if the state is actually acquiring large tracts of land and diminishing the tax roles of rural counties? Here’s something to think about:

  • State agencies have added 120,470 acres to public holdings in the last 10 years. Fish and Wildlife increased its holdings by 82,472 acres, Natural Resources by 34,535 acres and State Parks by 3,463.
  • During the last 10 years, Kittitas County lost the most private land to state agencies, 28,063 acres. Okanogan County was second with 22,877 acres being removed from the tax rolls.
  • State agencies spent $413.2 million last year alone buying land.

Isn’t it ironic that the counties with the highest land acquisitions by state agencies in the last 10 years had the largest wildfires in recent years?

With state agencies spending so much of our tax dollars on land acquisitions, the committee’s report is a step in the right direction. But if we’re really going to get a handle on ever-expanding government holdings, lawmakers need to demand measured outcomes or direct agencies to sell lands back into the private sector.

Roger Harnack is the editor and publisher of The Chronicle. He can be reached at 509-826-1110 or via email at rharnack@omakchronicle.com.



Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment