2008 Centennial - History - O & C Lands

Adapted from Gerald W. Williams, Ph.D. - USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region

General History of the O&C Lands

The Oregon and California Railroad grant lands, commonly called the O&C lands, came into existence shortly after the Civil War. Congress provided subsidies, in the form of land grants from the Public Domain (Federally owned land), to the various States for the purpose of aiding the construction of rail and wagon roads and to encourage westward expansion.

The Oregon O&C California Railroad Land Grant

Congress granted specific lands to the State of Oregon in 1866 for the construction of a railroad from Portland, Oregon, southward to the California border near Ashland. (Another land grant was given to the State of California for that portion of the railroad.) The O&C land grant gave both States the authority to designate a company to construct the railroad and receive the land grant as a subsidy to offset construction costs. The intent of the land grant was for the private company or corporation to sell the land so that it could recover its "up-front" expenses in the construction of the rail line. After the sale of the land, the company would profit, as any business would, through the services that it offered to the public in the form of passenger travel and freight hauling.

The O&C railroad land grant included all odd-numbered sections of Public-Domain land, non-mineral in character, within 20 miles of each side of the proposed railroad line. If land within the grant land was already homesteaded or otherwise claimed, then the company was allowed to extend the strip to 30 miles from the rail line. The total acreage of the Oregon portion of the land grant was 4,220,000 acres. However, no company came forward with a proposal within the time set by the Act for the land grant. In 1869, Congress amended the granting Act to permit the Oregon and California Railroad Company to meet a new deadline. By this time, enough land had already gone into private ownership that the grant contained only 3,728,000 acres. The amended legislation also placed three conditions on the disposal of the lands granted to the company:

  • The land had to be sold to bona fide settlers.
  • No more than 160 acres could be sold to one individual.
  • The land could not be sold for more than $2.50 per acre.

Violations of the O&C Act

Construction of the rail line was begun by the Oregon and California Railroad Company, but completed by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, which acquired the O&C Railroad in 1887. Both companies violated all three conditions of the land-disposition rules. These actions went uncontested until 1903, when the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to discontinue the sales of the railroad grant land so that it could retain ownership of the increasingly valuable timber and land.

The Oregon Legislature believed the cessation of the railroad grant-lands sales would curtail continued settlement and development in western Oregon. After the State asked for assistance, the Federal Government responded on April 30, 1908, when Congress passed a joint resolution (35 Stat. 571) directing the U.S. Attorney to reclaim, through court action, all unsold O&C railroad grant lands. Seven years of litigation followed, culminating in a decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1915. The Supreme Court issued an injunction forbidding the Southern Pacific Railroad Company to make further land sales, but also stating that the actual disposition of the unsold O&C land was a legislative rather than a judicial function (238 U.S. 411). After considerable testimony from all the parties involved, Congress passed the O&C Revestment Act on June 9, 1916, returning 2.4 million acres of unsold O&C grant lands in Oregon, but not in California, to Federal ownership. Management of these lands fell under the jurisdiction of the General Land Office in the Department of the Interior (DOI), although several hundred-thousand acres were within the National Forest boundaries under the management of the Department of Agriculture (USDA), at that time.

Active Federal management of the Oregon O&C lands began with the passage of the O&C Act of August 28, 1937, which gave management control to the new O&C Administration within DOI's General Land Office. Since 1946, the O&C land has been administered by BLM, which was formed by the combining of the General Land Office and the Grazing Service in DOI. On June 24, 1954, in Public Law No. 425, Congress settled a longstanding dispute over the management of the O&C lands within National Forest boundaries by requiring a land exchange between BLM and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS, which is part of USDA). In the exchange, which occurred in 1956, several hundred thousand acres of O&C lands were transferred from USFS to BLM.

Since 1953, revenues generated from the sale of forest products, mainly timber, from the O&C lands have been divided among the U.S. Treasury, the County within which the revenue was generated, and the administering Federal Agency. Of the money received, 25 percent is returned to the U.S. Treasury, another 25 percent is retained by BLM or USFS, and the remaining 50 percent is given directly to the Counties within which the revenue-generating activities occurred. The 25 percent which is retained by the Federal Agencies, often referred to as the "plowback" fund, is used to manage the O&C lands; this management includes projects such as reforestation, road construction, recreation improvements, and fish and wildlife enhancement.

Current Management of the O&C Lands

Since 1946, the O&C lands have been administered by BLM and USFS. Since 1953, revenues generated from the sale of forest products, usually timber, from the O&C lands has been divided among the U.S. Treasury, the County where the revenue was generated, and the administering Federal Agency. Of the money received, 25 percent is returned to the U.S. Treasury, another 25 percent is retained by the administering Federal Agency, and the remaining 50 percent is given directly to the County where the O&C lands are located. The 25 percent which is retained by the Federal Agencies is used to manage the O&C lands, including projects such as reforestation, road construction, recreation improvements, and fish and wildlife habitat enhancement.

The O&C lands comprise the majority of BLM-administered land in the western one-third of Oregon. The land is heavily forested with Douglas-fir and western hemlock species. Much of the land retains the original "checkerboard" character; that is, O&C land is located in the odd-numbered sections, private land is located in the even-numbered sections. This can create management challenges for the O&C land managers, as land-use changes on adjacent private lands affect the management of the Federal Lands.

BLM manages approximately 2,084,107 acres of O&C lands, along with 74,547 acres of revested Coos Bay Wagon Road lands. These western-Oregon lands are heavily forested with Douglas-fir and western hemlock species. Much of the land still retains the original "checkerboard" character; that is, O&C land is in the odd-numbered sections, and private land is in the even-numbered sections.

USFS manages another 492,399 acres of O&C lands. This includes the Siskiyou NF with 173,086 acres, the Umpqua NF with 137,995 acres, the Rogue River NF with 60,974 acres, the Willamette NF with 51,272 acres, the Mt. Hood NF with 41,637 acres, the Winema NF with 18,772 acres, and the Siuslaw NF with 7,606 acres.





https://www.fs.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsinternet/cs/detail/!ut/p/z1/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfIjo8zijQwgwNHCwN_DI8zPyBcqYKAfjlVBmA9cQRQx-g1wAEci9eNREIXf-HD9KH0CHtDHb4KfR35uqn5BbmhohEGWCQCHVD_f/dz/d5/L2dBISEvZ0FBIS9nQSEh/?position=Not%20Yet%20Determined.Html&pname=Umpqua%20National%20Forest-%20About%20the%20Forest&ss=110615&navtype=BROWSEBYSUBJECT&pnavid=null&navid=170000000000000&ttype=detail&cid=stelprdb5307846