The term "public land" sounds pretty straightforward.
Not in parts of Baker County, at any rate.
A person would naturally expect that public land belongs to the public, which is to say all of us. And so it logically follows that all of us can go there.
The first part is accurate.
The second part, not so much.
In fact, due to vagaries of land boundaries that would require a
historian as well as a surveyor to untangle, there are sizeable chunks
of public land in Baker County which are off limits to almost everyone.
Well, almost everyone who doesn't want to risk getting arrested for trespassing.
These "islands" of public land, of which there are several thousand
acres in the county, most overseen by the BLM or Forest Service, are
surrounded by private property.
And because the federal agencies lack a legal easement through the
private parcels, the public has no legal way to get to the public
No way that doesn't involve a helicopter, a parachute or a really big catapult, anyway.
This situation bothers us. Public land isn't worth much if hardly anybody can enjoy it except from afar.
Unfortunately, there's no simple solution to this dilemma.
The government would tread on controversial - and potentially
unconstitutional - ground were it to mandate that private property
owners allow the public unfettered access through their parcels to
reach adjacent public property.
A compromise, clearly, is in order.
Which is precisely what one state-run program offers, albeit of a limited sort.
It's called the Access and Habitat Program (AHP), and it's under the auspices of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In exchange for cash payments, private landowners allow people to hunt on their property.
The money for the payments comes from a $4 surcharge on Oregon hunting
licenses. That explains why enrolled properties are open to hunters
rather than to everyone.
But opening private land to hunters isn't the program's only benefit.
A new AHP project will also give hunters access, though not by motor
vehicle, to 4,200 acres of public land on the south side of Lookout
Mountain northeast of Durkee.
That includes one of the larger public land islands in Baker County.
Ultimately, we would like to see that property, and every other piece
of inaccessible public land in the state, made available to every
Ideally, such access would be by a permanent easement rather than a
temporary arrangement such as the AHP, which generally runs for three
to five years.
Another potential option is to look for roads leading to the public
land that the county could declare as public rights-of-way through the
R.S. 2477 statute.
The BLM and Forest Service have also pursued land swaps with private
property owners, but such exchanges tend to be slow and expensive.
We the public can help, however, in making easements to "our" land more possible.
Private landowners are apt to be more amenable to negotiating easements
if the public acts responsibly in places where we already have the
legal right to cross private property - by way of public roads that go
through private land, for instance.
But when we fail to close gates, fire bullets through "no trespassing"
signs, heave our litter into the brush, or otherwise act obnoxiously,
we ought not expect that we'll be welcomed as guests.