Case closed

Report clearly shows county doesn't have the power to take over federal forestland

After months of research, Jackson County Counsel Rick Whitlock has debunked the misguided notion that county officials can seize control of federal land simply by declaring jurisdiction over it. That ought to put the matter to rest, although there are sure to be those who won't accept reality.

There has always been a fringe element of the public, especially in the rural West, that believes county governments have some special ability to defy federal authority. The courts, however, have been less than sympathetic to this attitude, as Whitlock documented for the Board of Commissioners Wednesday.

Doug Breidenthal, who will replace Commissioner C.W. Smith in January, raised the issue during his campaign, pointing to Apache County, Ariz., as an example of a county that successfully invoked jurisdiction to conduct thinning operations in federal forests.

In fact, Whitlock said, what little thinning was done in that county — 85 acres — occurred in collaboration with federal officials. Collaborative projects here in Jackson County have thinned 82,000 acres in the past five years and 72,000 acres are scheduled for thinning work, in addition to work now under way on 7,500 acres in the Ashland Watershed.

Whitlock reviewed legislation back to the 18th century, but found little encouragement for those who would defy federal authority. Since the 1950s, the courts have consistently held that the federal government owns federal forests, despite efforts by some states to take control.

"In short, the federal law is supreme," he said.

County officials here point out that cooperation with federal forest managers has been far more productive than defiance. It's also worth noting that there is a good reason why the federal government should continue to manage federal forests: It has the money to do it properly.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, hardly a big fan of federal authority, refused to sign a bill passed by that state's legislature that sought to take over national forestland because the state did not have the resources to manage it.

It is unfortunate that Jackson County resources had to be expended to demonstrate what was obvious to most observers: Federal land belongs to the federal government, which manages it for the benefit of the public. County government has enough to do without trying to take on vast swaths of federal forest.

Whitlock's report ought to put the issue to rest, and when Breidenthal takes office next month, he should refrain from spending time and effort on a lost cause.


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