Baker County’s 2 million acres are divided almost equally between private and public land.
But that statistic comes with an asterisk.
Not every one of those approximately 1 million acres of public land is public in the most fundamental sense — that we, the public, can go there.
There are in fact at least a few dozen chunks of public ground in Baker County — and many hundreds across the West — that are surrounded by private land for which the public lacks legal access.
These “islands” of public land constitute a two-pronged problem. First, the public can’t reach them without trespassing. And the second, related, issue is that the owners of the adjacent private property in some cases are more likely to have people trespassing on their way to the private parcels.
Fortunately the federal government is at least considering ways to deal with this unsatisfactory situation.
A conservation bill that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law last year requires that the government try to gain legal access to these public land islands.
The Bureau of Land Management, which manages more public land than any other federal agency and has the largest number of inaccessible parcels — including those in Baker County — is asking residents to nominate pieces of ground for a priority list that the agency will release by mid March.
William “Perry” Pendley, the BLM’s acting director, said the agency welcomes “information from the public that will help us pinpoint barriers to access.”
After the BLM has compiled its priority list, the agency will ask Congress for money to buy rights-of-way or easements across intervening private parcels, or look for other ways to ensure legal access.
That’s likely to be more effective than the federal government’s tactic of proposing land swaps in which the feds sometimes try to exchange dozens of parcels of public land for private parcels of similar value, with the goal of consolidating ownership and in effect ridding the map of “islands.”
The problem with land swaps is that they usually take years to complete. And in some cases they never actually take place due to complaints about a lack of balance between public and private interests or other factors.
The BLM’s current project, though welcome, is not likely to be a panacea for the problem of public land islands in Baker County.
That’s because the priority list will include parcels of at least one square mile — 640 acres. Many of the public land islands in Baker County are smaller than 640 acres, with 40 to 120 acres being a common size. Most of these are in the eastern and southeastern parts of the county.
It’s logical that BLM officials would focus first on the biggest inaccessible parcels. Ideally the agency will be successful in this initial campaign and then move on to the smaller pieces. Forty acres might seem a pittance for an agency that manages more than 245 million acres, but it’s a pretty fair spread for someone who wants to go hiking or hunting.
— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor