Wallowa County taxpayers will be the ones who come out on the short end of the stick if the Blue Mountain Land Exchanges goes through as planned.
Of the seven counties involved in the massive 57,000-acre exchange, Wallowa County will give up by far the most private land. If the deal is struck as planned, Wallowa County landowners will give up 16,267 acres of land, mostly along the Imnaha River, in exchange for 6,993 acres of federal land, located mostly in the uplands. That is a deficit of 9,274 acres - a figure that is important to Wallowa County because it represents lands that will no longer be included in the county tax base.
No one knows for sure what the exact cost to Wallowa County taxpayers will be because the actual values of the lands to be exchanged have not yet been appraised. However, it is safe to say based on the net loss of acreage that the loss of tax base will be substantial.
Let's say that the average value of the land is $200 an acre, which is probably a good ballpark figure for grazing land in the Imnaha basin. If the county is giving up 9,274 acres, the loss of tax base is roughly $1.85 million. For the sake of argument, say the rate on those properties is at the $15 per $1,000 cap allowed unter Measure 5. The cost to the county in yearly property taxes would be approximately $28,000. Of course that is gross oversimplification which does not account for discounts ranchers receive for "farm deferral," but it gives you a sense of the order of magnitude we are talking about.
In the grand scheme of things, asking taxpayers to make up that differential isn't asking a lot. But that's what they say about every tax measure that comes along. If you keep adding a few dollars to your tax bill -- for schools, animal control, weed control, the extension service, and land exchanges -- pretty soon it adds up to real money. It's an insidious kind of thing, like the proverbial straw on the camel's back -- at some point the poor camel collapses.
In a lot of ways the land exchange makes sense. It will eliminate the hodgepodge of "inholdings" - islands of private land surrounded by public land and vice versa - thereby reducing the costs associated with maintaining miles and miles of irregular boundaries. It will also be good for recreationists, who will gain unfettered access to five miles of the upper Imnaha River, between the town of Imnaha and the Paulette Ranch, and 11 miles of the lower Imnaha in prime steelhead fishing habitat. These are extraordinary lands that deserve federal protection for the enjoyment of the people of the United States.
The problem is that Wallowa County property owners, who foot the bill for roads, law enforcement, search and rescue, medical services, weed control, and garbage disposal, will be saddled with a disproportionate share of the cost of this public benefit. That isn't fair and it isn't right. Wallowa County, one of the poorest communities in the United States, with public schools on the brink of closing because they are out of money, is in no position to be subsidizing expensive federal recreation programs.
If it were not for the tax issue, the Blue Mountain Land Exchange might be a win-win proposition - good for the public and good for private landowners. As it now stands, however, the exchange is deficient because it fails to hold Wallowa County property owners harmless for the extra taxes they will have to pay as a consequence of the deal. Until this deficiency is corrected Wallowa County has no choice but to oppose the exchange
If the federal government is going to acquire more land in Wallowa County - it already owns more than 70 percent of everything - the least it could do is start acting like a good neighbor by paying its share of the costs. R.S.