by Randy Parks
The Department of State Lands (DSL) hosted a public hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 30, to receive input on the proposed land exchange between DSL and Tree Top Ranches.
The proposed exchange involves parcels of land located in Harney and Malheur counties, totaling about 1,220 acres.
Chris Castelli, senior policy and legislative analyst for the DSL, welcomed those in attendance and gave a short presentation showing the parcels of land that would be involved in the exchange.
The main concern of those attending was that the exchange could affect access to public lands and to South Fork Reservoir.
Castelli explained the reservoir does not meet the definition of a “navigable-for-public-use waterway,” and belongs to Tree Top Ranches.
In making its determination that the reservoir is not navigable-for-public-use, the DSL used an opinion of the Oregon Attorney General issued in 1972 regarding Fishhawk Lake, located in Clatsop and Columbia counties.
The question put forth in the Fishhawk Lake case was, “Do members of the public have a right to use boats on the waters of an artificial lake, resulting from the damming of a non-navigable stream, although the beds and banks of the lake are privately owned and the waters are artificially impounded by the owner under a permit from the state engineer?”
The answer was, “No.”
In comparing South Fork reservoir to the Fishhawk Lake opinion, DSL determined that the reservoir is formed from the damming of a non-navigable stream, and is not deemed navigable by DSL.
Bill Mulder, representing Tree Top, said Tree Top is a cattle ranch, and the exchange makes sense because it aligns property lines with natural features. As for the reservoir, Mulder stated Larry Williams, the owner of Tree Top Ranches, has said if the exchange goes through, the reservoir will remain open to fishermen as long as use of the reservoir doesn’t become a nuisance.
Harney County resident Dave Glerup pointed out that three parcels of land that would go to Tree Top in the exchange, labeled 5B, 10B and 11B on the map, currently provide access to a large portion of public land, and if that access is closed, it would block off the public use.
Berry Anderson of Tree Top stated the issue for the ranch was hunting and the protection of private lands. He said fishermen are no problem, but Williams spends about $200,000 a year feeding wildlife on the ranch and hunters try to access the private land.
Members of the audience wanted to know if continued access to public land through the three parcels could be written into the exchange agreement. Several examples were given of past agreements where one of the parties said there was no problem, but as soon as the exchange was done, public access was blocked off.
Castelli was asked if all recorded, existing easements will remain in place after the exchange?
“That is our intent,” answered Castelli.
Jim Knott with the Oregon Hunters Association OHA) said, “There is a bad element wherever you go. People assume they can go anywhere they want, whenever they want.”
He said OHA tries to instill respect for private lands, and he would like to see a better description of some of the parcels included in the exchange proposal. He suggested maybe excluding some of the parcels that would be involved in the exchange.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty stated a solution would be to institutionalize, or legalize, every two-track road in the area affected by the land swap, thereby creating an easement and preserving public access.
DSL will continue taking public comment on the proposed land exchange until Oct. 15.
Comments may be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org, with a subject line of “Tree Top” or mailed to Asset Analyst Clara Taylor, Oregon Department of State Lands, 775 Summer Street NE No. 100, Salem, OR 97301.