CANYON CITY - A proposed land deal between the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the D.R. Johnson family sparked a wide-ranging discussion - and vigorous opposition - last week at the Grant County Court meeting.

The Court didn't take a vote, but members declined to sign a letter of support for the deal.

Bill Richardson, representing the Foundation, said he was disappointed not to gain the county's support. However, he said, the organization has an option for the property and will move ahead on the project, which is in the appraisal stage. He said there are still a "a lot of forks in the road" toward a deal, but he hopes it will come together.

In the Headwaters of the John Day River Project, the Foundation proposes to acquire some 13,000 acres of land from the Johnson family. The land is in the "checkerboard" area southeast of Prairie City, where sections of private land are intermixed with Malheur National Forest land.

If the appraisals go as hoped, the Foundation would acquire the land and convey it to the Forest Service. Supporters say the transaction would keep the land from being parceled out to multiple absentee owners for private hunting preserves or development, and that consolidating the ownership would provide better habitat for wildlife and multiple uses on the forest.

However, opponents say the deal would take land out of private ownership in a county that already has some 75 percent public land. They also question how well the Forest Service would manage the land, with several critics lambasting the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for its work on the Murderers Creek wildlife area.

The Foundation had asked the Court to sign a letter of support for the deal, and members discussed the request in the past two meetings. The April 24 meeting drew about a dozen citizens, most speaking against the deal.

County Judge Scott Myers said last week he has received a lot of calls from people opposed to it. He acknowledged that if the Court were to block the transaction by not signing a letter, it could be seen as interfering.

However, he said he must represent the county's citizens, including its ranchers and other landowners who oppose the deal, so he would not sign the requested letter.

Commissioner Boyd Britton said he also had received lots of comments in opposition, and was still "wrestling" with the proposal. He worried that the county "always, always loses" in private-public land deals. He was doubtful about what to expect from federal management, and he was frustrated that Forest Service officials weren't calling him back on other matters.

Several people attending said they respect a private property owner's right to sell his land, but not in this case.

They suggested the deal be sent to the county planning commission for review, although others pointed out that the commission's job doesn't include vetting private property transactions when there is no zone or use change proposed.

Dan Driscoll of Dayville said private landowners do a better job of managing their land for habitat, and any further erosion of lands in the private sector should be avoided.

Pete Hettinga agreed, saying "the only thing that's keeping this county afloat is private property."

Ken Holliday said he supports the Johnson family's right to do what they want with their property," but he said the county should be able to maintain the current value of privately owned land.

He described arguments about fish habitat and landowner preference tags as "red herrings" to try to seal the deal.

He and others said the county should demand that any such deals end with no net loss of property value on the county's tax rolls.

Bob Phillips, a Foundation member, spoke in favor of the deal, and said he felt the discussion about land management was premature.

"The Johnsons have every right to sell their land to whomever they want to," he said. He added that the county doesn't have standing at this point to try to enforce an equal exchange of lands.

Holliday said he feels the group could work out a solution, and the parties in the deal should be able to find property of "like value" to make the county whole.

After the meeting, Richardson also said that in spite of the vigorous discussion and opposition, there also seemed to be some common ground that he's willing to explore further with the county.

The Court didn't schedule any more action on the topic.

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