The Grant County Court has begun deliberating over whether to support a proposed sale of property in the “checkerboard” of public-private land east of the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. So far the discussion has ranged far from what should be the definitive point: private property rights.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation wants to acquire land from the D.R. Johnson family, which is a willing seller. If the deal goes through, the Foundation would convey the land to the Forest Service. The parties want the county’s support for the deal.

So far the proposal has provoked concerns from people who worry that the county already has more than its share of public lands, and this would take some 13,000 acres of land off the property tax rolls. Others voiced concern about how the land will be managed, and what the eventual transfer to the Forest Service will mean for grazing, recreation and other uses.

All of these may be reasonable concerns, but what is the county’s role at this point?

Once the deal is done and the land morphs into public, the county does have a responsibility to advocate for the community’s needs in any management discussions. The Forest Service and the Foundation have pledged a collaborative process, and the county should claim standing in that.

But that comes later. For now, this is about the sale of private land.

We believe it doesn’t matter if the seller is the D.R. Johnson family or the Jones family next door; they have certain rights to dispose of their land as they see fit. In this case, recognizing community sensitivity, the Johnsons have offered to make up 10 years worth of property tax loss for the county – something they have no legal obligation to do.

It should be noted that Grant County has seen other private families give, sell or transfer land for public use. The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and several state parks and waysides in our area have roots in private ownership; they now are considerable public assets. The County Court even facilitated the establishment of the most recent state park campground at Bates.

Some members of the County Court last week seemed inclined to support the deal. We urge them to keep it simple and avoid side issues. They should support private property rights. Then, if that leads to consolidation of the checkerboard into a more cohesive tract of public land, they should prepare to take an active role in the management discussions.

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