The Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts (COLT) works to serve the interests of the land trust community in the state and to strengthen its collective ability to preserve the environment for the benefit of people everywhere, now and in the future.
Through its many successful efforts at coalition-building and assistance with policymaking since its inception in 2012, COLT has played a vital role in the conservation of Oregon’s—and the nation’s—wildlife, public lands, and clean water.
A focus on private lands for the public good
Today’s system of land administration across the country includes both public lands, which are technically owned and maintained by all citizens through their federal, state, and local governments; and private lands, those owned by non-government-affiliated private individuals or organizations.
Government agencies administer public lands and oversee policies dealing with how those resources are conserved or used. A land trust, on the other hand, is a privately held, nonprofit entity set up to work with individuals and organizations dedicated to conservation and preservation of land from encroachment by heedless development and other threats.
Landowners who want to conserve the resources of their lands for the benefit of everyone can form land trusts for this purpose. COLT serves as the collective voice for the more than two dozen land trusts operating in Oregon that work to preserve privately held lands. COLT does not own or manage any land, but it advocates for those who do.
COLT’s priority activities include representing the interests of its variety of land trust partner organizations in connection with federal and state regulatory and legislative issues. Its board prepares a set of policies that drive each annual work plan.
Over the highly contentious Oregon 80th state legislative session that ended in summer 2019, COLT’s membership was able to mobilize support to help defeat several last-minute anti-environment bills and provisions. During the session, only one anti-wetlands bill passed the state legislature. Significant challenges remain, however. Major land protection bills failed to pass.
Some signal victories
COLT’s effort to turn out dozens of land trust advocates and landowners in support of environmental legislation was successful, with advocates from around the state voicing their strong support for these measures to their elected representatives.
COLT also achieved a victory in getting a cap-and-trade bill amended so that it would include a dedicated investment for wilderness and working lands.
The organization additionally provided support for ongoing investment in protecting crucial lands as part of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board’s budget.
Protecting important farmland and ranching areas
Among COLT’s ongoing legislative concerns at the state level was to provide support for passage of House Bill 2729, which would have provided $10 million to support the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program. The OAHP aimed to help the state’s ranchers and farmers maintain their lands for future generations.
This bill garnered significant support and was passed out of Oregon’s House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use with a unanimous vote. But it ended the session stalled in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, although advocates had attached more than a dozen pieces of testimony in its support.
The bill’s goal to safeguard the state’s farmlands is particularly urgent in light of the fact that Oregon lost close to 350,000 acres of conservationally important farmland over the five-year period beginning in 2012.
Urging public investment to address climate change
Over the recently concluded legislative session, COLT also gave strong support to House Bill 2020, a proposed cap-and-trade system designed to reduce greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and give priority to investments in the conservation of natural and working land.
Along with their support for HB 2020, COLT members have also urged lawmakers to add dedicated funding allocations to support the health of wilderness and working lands.
Because a region’s water and land resources play a pivotal role in removing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, their conservation is critical in reducing atmospheric toxins and fighting climate change. The more land trusts in Oregon are able to conserve these precious lands and waters, the better they can help build up the area’s resilience in the face of environmental threats.
By investing in clean energy development and lowering greenhouse gasses, the cap-trade-invest program proposed in HB 2020 would have added tens of thousands of new jobs to the region, boosted the state’s GDP by 2.5 percent, and reduced healthcare spending by some $2 billion per year.
However, in a dramatic finish to the legislative session that ended hope of passing HB 2020 this year, Republican state senators staged a walk-out, thus guaranteeing that the bill could not be passed.
Arguing the case for wetlands protection
Another major legislative fight that COLT members are gearing up for involves wetlands. The anti-conservation House Bill 2436 did pass the legislature, but only after several amendments.
COLT’s membership was heartened to learn that the final bill did not include provisions that would have given sweeping authority to the director of the Oregon Department of State Lands to green-light developers’ permits. Additionally, because a small group of legislators continued to oppose the bill even in its final form, COLT will be looking to them as the possible future nexus of pro-wetlands legislation.
The bill as passed into law does retain certain provisions that will have a significant negative impact on the environment. For example, a developer-friendly section now allows state monies to be spent on studies to determine how the state can take on some of the permitting authority currently held by federal agencies under the terms of the Clean Water Act.
The aspect of this legislation that has COLT particularly concerned is the fact that, should federal authorities step away from their current regulatory role, it would open the door to developers being able to exert greater influence on state legislators to approve dredge and fill requests on sensitive wetland territory.
COLT has pledged on behalf of its member land trusts and the public to continue to provide strident support for strong pro-environment legislation in the 2020 legislative session and beyond.