Home News Local News This Land Is Your Land
This Land Is Your Land
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
You own a million acres in Baker County.
Really, you do.
When you pitch a tent here, odds are you own the very patch of ground into which you just pounded the stakes (and perhaps a misplaced thumb).
The mountain trail where you like to hike and where you saw your first mountain goat? Probably you own it, too (the trail, not the goat).
And that alpine lake from which you reeled in a limit of brook trout? It's yours, most likely.
There's 2 million acres in Baker County, and about half of them belong to you.
That's like owning Delaware and Rhode Island, but with a lot of mountains and no ocean.
Here's the catch: You have to share those acres with 275 million other Americans, though rarely all of them at once.
That's the tradeoff of public land.
It's yours but it's everyone else's, too.
You can visit whenever you want to but you can never stay.
You can't swap, say, the Elkhorn Mountains for one of Donald Trump's skyscrapers.
And no matter how cute you think those pastel lawn gnomes are, you'll have to save them to decorate a piece of property that only you have the deed for.
Baker County boasts enough public land, though, and it has a sufficiently puny population density of one full-time resident for every 120 acres, that you can pretty easily find a place and at least pretend it's yours alone for a night or two.
Spread out a county map on your coffee table and see for yourself.
Let's say the clever cartographers used green ink to denote public land and white for private.
Much of the west half of Baker County looks like a green sheet that someone leaned over while holding a leaking bottle of Elmer's glue at arm's length. There are white splotches here and there, but you have to squint to make out some of them.
Most of that green-tinted land is national forest primarily the Wallowa-Whitman, but with a dab of the Malheur wedged into the county's southwest corner.
Combined, the two national forests cover about 650,000 acres in Baker County almost one-third of the land.
The green-with-white-pimples pattern prevails in much of the northern third of the county, too, where the sedimentary slopes of the Wallowa Mountains slop over from neighboring Wallowa and Union counties.
Public land isn't quite so plentiful in the eastern and southern sections of Baker County. There's not much for trees there, either, and so the Bureau of Land Management, which if it had a football team would have the sagebrush as its mascot, is in charge of these publicly owned acres rather than the Forest Service, which prefers land with vegetation tall enough to hide elk herds.
Nationwide, BLM actually ranks as the supreme public landlord, managing 261 million acres in America to the Forest Service's 191 million.
But the agencies' positions are reversed in Baker County, where the BLM oversees 369,000 acres about 40 percent less land than the Forest Service handles.
(If you want to see a place where BLM reigns, go to Nevada. The agency manages most of the state, except casinos and the places where the Air Force stores UFOs and alien cadavers.)
Between the wide swaths of green on the Baker County map you'll notice a few expanses of white.
These chunks of private land spread across Baker County's handful of broad valleys Baker, Pine, Eagle, Burnt River, Sumpter.
This is not a coincidence.
Only in the valleys is the ground flat and the soils deep and rich, so a farmer can grow hay and potatoes and wheat and other stuff that's good to eat or to sell.
And most any property that will produce a crop every year is valuable enough that someone will claim it as his own rather than leave it in the hands of the public, who tend to get their fingers all tangled anyway trying to decide whether the land should turn a profit for a company or present a scenic view for a photographer.
People prefer to live in valleys, too, so that's where we put most of our towns.
The weather's warmer, for one thing, and it doesn't snow as much as in the mountains (Pine and Sumpter valleys join forces to form the frigid exception to that meteorological rule).
"When the homesteaders came in they always took the best ground, the ground that was irrigated or could be irrigated," said Jay Carr, who works for the Oregon State University Extension Service in Baker County. "That's the way it is across the West."
But unlike some parts of the West Lake Tahoe, for example, or Sun Valley a fair amount of Baker County's land has remained in public rather than private hands.
And although public lands don't generate property taxes, as farms and ranches and gnome-infested front yards do, they're nonetheless vital to the county's economy as well as its quality of life, Carr said.
Consider beef cattle.
Raising and selling them injected $35.6 million into county coffers in 2003, making cattle the biggest part (69 percent) of the biggest sector of Baker County's economy: agriculture.
There's about 115,000 head of cattle in the county, and not many of them spend every day plodding around a private pasture.
"A large proportion of the cattle spend at least a portion of their lives on public grazing land, either BLM or Forest Service," Carr said. "We're very dependent on that land."
The public rangelands serve a couple of purposes, he said.
First, those lands produce the grass that produces the pounds of meat that produce the dollars that plump ranchers' wallets.
And second, the public pastures are akin to a summer camp for cattle.
With the animals out of their hair for a few months, ranchers can grow and cut and bale the hay that cattle consume during the lean days of winter.
Imagine trying to pilot a swather through a field thick with Herefords it'd be as easy to drive a Jet Ski across a swamp rife with hippos.
Public lands generate far more than profits, though.
Many Baker County residents spend a fair share of their leisure hours on public property.
After all, that's where most of the fish swim and the elk roam and the roads and trails meander.
And we appreciate, even if we don't often think of it, that it's because we all own these places that they retain most or all of the charms that lure us back year after year.
It's why when we look across Anthony Lake today we see what people saw five decades ago, or 10: white granite and dark green subalpine firs and wildflowers that span the palette and spill off the sides.
And it's why we don't see a putting green and a sign that says "members only" and a gate manned by a guy who looks as if he could make Gov. Schwarzenegger cry "uncle" in five seconds flat.