On the Hot Seat: Inslee budget conceals land grab

When government controls land, it controls people.
That’s one of the reasons our nation’s founding fathers limited the scope and ability of government to hold title to land. But you wouldn’t know that in the West today, where federal and state governments hold title to more than half of all the acreage from Rocky Mountain states to the Pacific Ocean.
In Washington state, according to 2015 data, government agencies control approximately 41 percent of all land.
As a rural resident in Eastern Washington, I think that’s far too much. But most government agencies don’t share my view. In fact, most are looking to expand their control of the land in our state — and along with it, their control of the public.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget highlights my point.
In his proposal released last week, the governor wants $115 million allocated to the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program. If approved by the Legislature, the money would be used primarily to expand government “ownership” of land in the state. His plan is to add at least $30.5 million to the Habitat Conservation Fund and $12.4 million to the Farm and Forest accounts. That money would then be used by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and a variety of environmental activists to purchase private property in the name of “recreational” opportunities.
That amount doesn’t include the funding Fish and Wildlife is including in its budget to purchase more land. Nor does it include any funds the state departments of Natural Resources, Ecology, etc. are also requesting in the name of “conservation.”
Continued land acquisitions by state and federal agencies concern me. I also take issue with state government using public dollars to help extreme environmental groups buy and control land based on a group’s political agenda.
Looking at the list of potential Fish and Wildlife land grabs in Inslee’s budget, there is a line item to buy two parcels totaling 53.4 acres in Ferry County. The acreage is currently in private ownership, but Fish and Wildlife calls those properties — and others still in private ownership — the “Sherman Creek Inholdings.” That’s because the agency has already purchased most of the land surrounding the acreage and added that land to its Sherman Creek Unit.
The state says the purchase would eliminate the need for easements and improve access to the land for hunting white tailed deer. It also says it needs to control the land to protect the northern goshawk and white headed woodpecker.
I’ve heard that story before: Remember the spotted owl circles and the governments insistence that it needed to control activity on the land to protect the species? Remember the Clinton-era Roadless Initiative? And how about the state’s purchase of the 20,000-acre Grand Coulee Ranch to protect the sharped-tailed gross habitat from development?
Government agencies, both state and federal, have proven time and time again that they are not able to properly manage the public-owned land for public benefit. Furthermore, these ongoing land acquisitions continue to take their toll on rural economies.
In rural counties like Okanogan, Ferry, Asotin, Stevens and others, municipalities depend on property tax revenues to pay for basic services like roads, law enforcement, fire protection and schools. When government “owns” the land, it makes a much smaller “payment in lieu of taxes” to local coffers.
The decreased funding means less services, higher taxes, or both. It also means a forced change in the culture, heritage and lifestyle in the affected areas.
Furthermore, Inslee’s idea of recreation isn’t the same as those of us who live, work and actually recreate in the mountains and forests east of the Cascades. To me, recreation means hiking, fishing, camping, horseback riding, four-wheeling, snowmobiling, off-roading and much, much more. To enjoy the outdoors, it means keeping dirt roads and trails open to motorized vehicles.
For Inslee and the environmental activists he would give money to, recreation means limiting access to foot or horseback. That comes with forest and mountain road closures and restrictions on activities in the name of so-called “conservation.”
Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition Executive Director Christine Mahler calls Inslee’s funding request “legacy level.” Furthermore, she says “beautiful places will be lost for the next generation if we don’t act now” to approve the funding.
But most of the funds won’t be used to protect land actually in danger of development. Take a look at the proposed Sherman Creek Inholdings acquisition south of U.S. Highway 20 near the Columbia River. Do you see any major developments on the horizon? In fact, do you see any major development on the horizon in the area west of the Kettle Falls bridge over the Columbia River?
No. There aren’t any.
The land is not threatened by development.
The proposed acquisition is just a smokescreen for the agency to expand its fiefdom, and its control the activities of visitors and rural residents in Ferry County and nearby Kettle Falls.
There was probably a time when the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program served a bona fide purpose. But that time’s long past.
The program now provides an end-run around state agencies that don’t want all of their planned land buys to show up directly in their budget. And it has become a funding source for extreme environmental groups that have shut down commercial and recreational opportunities that sustain rural culture, heritage and lifestyle, as well as rural economies.
The Legislature needs to see through this charade and deny all funding for land acquisitions.
— Roger Harnack is the editor and publisher of the Statesman-Examiner and Deer Park Tribune. Email him at publisher@statesmanexaminer.com.