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Unraveling the O&C Lands Act

April 26, 2017

 

Cascade-Siskiyou expansion: Who makes our nation’s laws, the president or Congress? (Guest opinion)

By Travis Joseph

Presidents of the United States, regardless of political party, should always follow the law. Separation of powers is the founding principle of our Constitution.

Law Professor Michael Blumm’s guest opinion in The Oregonian/OregonLive (“A misguided attack on the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument,” April 4) offers a different argument: Presidents should follow the law when it fits a political agenda, but be allowed to reinterpret the law when it doesn’t.

This conflict is at the heart of the American Forest Resource Council’s legal challenge to President Obama’s expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Southern Oregon: Who makes our nation’s laws, the President or Congress?

Congress passed a law called the O&C Act in 1937. The law reserves more than 2.2 million acres of BLM forests in Western Oregon for the explicit purpose of “permanent forest production” on “all lands” based on the principle of sustained yield. In 80 years, Congress has not amended, repealed, replaced, or modified the O&C Act. It remains the law of the land.

As made clear in his guest opinion, Professor Blumm does not personally agree with the mandate of the O&C Act. Fair enough. All Americans likely disagree with some of our country’s laws. But we must follow them nonetheless – unless or until they are changed – because America is a nation of laws. What’s the point if we get to pick and choose the laws we follow?

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened in January 2017 when the president disregarded the meaning of the O&C Act through an executive action. Through that executive action, the president unlawfully repurposed more than 40,000 acres of O&C Lands and indefinitely banned “permanent forest production” on those same lands, despite federal law requiring the opposite.

Professor Blumm personally agrees with the president’s decision because he supports a larger national monument in Southern Oregon. Again, fair enough. But as a professor of law at Lewis and Clark College, Mr. Blumm should know that the president doesn’t get to make the law. Congress does.

And if Congress wants to expand the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Southern Oregon and rewrite the O&C Act, it can. The Constitution establishes a clear process for doing that: introduce legislation, pass the legislation through the House of Representatives and Senate, and secure the President’s signature. The process is difficult, slow, and requires bipartisanship – exactly how the framers envisioned it.

Even though I strongly disagree with Professor Blumm and his account of the process, I respect his personal views on the monument. Diversity of opinion is a good thing. But personal views should not trump the law, the Constitutional doctrine of separation of powers, or a president’s commitment to faithfully execute the law.

The American Forest Resource Council’s legal challenge is not just about the O&C Act and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. It’s about whether the plain words of federal law have meaning, or whether a president has the authority to disregard those words without Congressional authorization or judicial review.

That’s an important question today and the answer will have legal implications for Democratic and Republican administrations in the future. It will also have implications for holding presidents to the letter and spirit of the laws the Constitution directs them to carry out.

Travis Joseph is the president and chief executive officer of the American Forest Resource Council.

  
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