Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

By Pat Caldwell

It is called a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, or CCAA, and it may just be one of the most significant preservation tools for landowners and cattlemen that you've never heard of.

The agreements are the focal point of a bill passed by Oregon lawmakers - and subsequently signed into law by Gov. John Kitzhaber - during the Legislature's short session that ended March 7. The legislation, spearheaded by Oregon State Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) produces exemptions to the public records law regarding written pacts - CCAAs - connected to conservation of sage grouse. Bentz represents Baker, Grant, Harney and Malheur counties along with a portion of Lake County

In a CCAA, a private property owner agrees to conduct certain conservation efforts under a special permit. Under the provisions of the agreement, a property owner is guaranteed that if he or she participates in specific conservation activities - also known as a site specific plan - for a species they will not be forced to implement extra measures beyond what is outlined in the CCAA. And, if a specific species included in the CCAA is listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the landowner will not be forced to make more land, water or resource modifications unless they agree to.

Bentz's legislation, House Bill 4093, enlarged existing confidentiality protections for Oregon landowners who decide to participate in the CCAAs for sage grouse.

"This (legislation) should be viewed as a very positive development," Bentz said. "The site specific plan under the CCAA is what we are trying to protect. The CCAA is the umbrella device."

Looming over the entire issue is the draft management plan under construction by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management designed to protect the sage grouse. The bird, which occupies rangeland in 11 Western states, including a portion of Eastern Oregon and Baker County, is warranted for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

While the BLM is busy assembling a management blueprint - viewed by many as a method to avoid the draconian impacts of an ESA listing - it will be the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make the final decision regarding whether the bird is positioned under the Endangered Species Act.

One of the key attributes of the state bill sponsored by Bentz is that it will safeguard critical, private landowner information, such as names, addresses, ranch location, size of pastures, cattle turnout times, included in CCAA's.

Bentz said the aim of the bill is to encourage more people to engage in the agreements. The number of landowners who participate in a CCAA will play a pivotal role, Bentz said, regarding whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides to list the bird.

"It creates a significant opportunity for ranchers and other landowners toprotect their confidential information.This is an extension to an already existing exemption," Bentz said

Bentz said while crafting the legislation he was mindful of the necessity to observe the sanctity of Oregon's public records law.

"This is totally consistent with the balance of the right of the public to know and the right of a person to keep their personal information private," he said. "We want to be extremely careful with transparency but on the other hand we know that there are many things that need to be confidential."

Bentz emphasized that when it comes to a potential ESA listing of the sage grouse, the stakes are very high for individual who utilize the range across Eastern Oregon.

Not only would an ESA listing possibly create more regulation of rangeland but it would also put a lot of area landowners at risk for civil lawsuits.

"An individual sees you out there with a brush beater knocking down brush, he can sue you to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

"That is what makes it so dangerous if a listing occurs. If he (the landowner) doesn't have the protection of the CCAA and his permit under it, he is in court. People have no clue about what is going to be the state of affairs should the listing occur," Bentz said.