A Central Oregon legislator withdrew his sponsorship of a controversial bill, one that critics say represents a first step toward selling public land.

Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, was a chief sponsor of House Bill 2365, which establishes a task force that would study the feasibility of transferring federally managed land to the state of Oregon. On Thursday, Whisnant defended his support for the bill, but announced he will no longer be sponsoring it, citing a flurry of emails and calls from concerned citizens and conservation organizations.

“I think it would be worthwhile to have a task force,” Whisnant said. “But I’m a common sense kind of guy.”

The House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources heard the bill in Salem on Thursday morning. The committee did not vote on the bill, but Whisnant, who did not attend the hearing, said it was unlikely the bill would receive a work session.

“Due to the fact that in all likelihood the bill will not pass and there appears to be many who do not want to hear other opinions about how to maintain Oregon’s beautiful national resources, I have removed my sponsorship of HB 2365,” Whisnant wrote in a prepared statement.

Approximately 53 percent of land in Oregon is managed by the federal government, and a majority of that land is concentrated in Central and Eastern Oregon. In Deschutes County, more than three-quarters of the land is managed by the federal government, according to numbers provided by the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association. Elsewhere in Central Oregon, 49.3 and 50.2 percent of land is managed by federal agencies in Crook and Jefferson Counties, respectively.

During the hearing, Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, the second of the bill’s two chief sponsors, emphasized that HB 2365 was simply a first step toward determining whether it makes economic sense for the state of Oregon to acquire land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, or other federal agencies. He added that he believes local communities could do a better job of managing the land in a way that stimulates economic development and prevents fires on public lands.

“I just have to believe that Oregonians would exercise a more loving and caring approach to our lands,” Wilson said during the hearing.

However, the bill drew the ire of at least one local conservation group. Dan Morse, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Desert Association, said during the hearing that the benefits to having public lands managed by federal agencies are already clear.

“We know we don’t need a costly, taxpayer-funded task force to tell us what we already know,” Morse said.

He added that some of the costs to managing public lands can be prohibitive for individual states. Morse cited a study stating a federal land transfer could cost the state $75 million per year in firefighting costs alone. As a result, he suggested that bill could result in land eventually being sold to private buyers.

“We strongly oppose HB 2365, and the fundamentally flawed concept that it represents,” Morse said.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association was one of several organizations and private citizens who spoke in opposition to the bill during the hearing. Representatives from the Sierra Club, Oregon Wild and Trout Unlimited also expressed their disapproval of the bill.

Though he withdrew his sponsorship of HB 2365, Whisnant said he’d like to continue looking at ways to manage public land more effectively. When asked if he would support similar bills in the future, Whisnant was noncommittal.

“The future’s the future,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com