The Orphan and the Oxbow

A search for runaway land in Marion County

Jen Wick Studio

If you were to stand at the very northwest corner of Ryan Lake in Gervais and looked past the sylvan overgrowth at the water’s edge, you would see, spanning the beautiful hills of Marion County, Lafollette’s Berry Farm. You might also be able to see a small piece of land, no bigger than a two-bedroom apartment, which belongs to the taxpaying citizens of the United States. This land has no visible boundaries, no signs. 

I wander along Wheatland Road at the edge of the farm looking for a way to get to that piece of land, waving over a few of the workers who are tending to the long lines of plants hung up on wire like Christmas ornaments. They don’t see me or don’t have time to. A few passing trucks stop to check if I’m all right or stranded. 

The truth is: I am unsure of where I am. As a person who grew up in New England, I’m new to everything about this place. Back east, the land long ago had flags planted and survey monuments confirmed, leaving no possibility of growth, contained or uncontained. It feels different, knowing that, not a stone’s throw from this very spot, there’s land listed in an official report’s ledger as available for disposal; it’s from one of these reports that I first came to know about this parcel, which, it seems, is an accident of history. 

Mission Lake

Willamette Mission State Park is unlike any other park I’ve ever set foot in. The place itself seems to spring from, or even in spite of, the agriculture around it: fields and fields of young trees and wire-trestled berries. There are innumerable signs making clear the delineation between private agriculture and public lands. Private Property: Do Not Trespass is as common a sight as the young men who carry gallon sprayers filled with weed repellant. 

The original mission buildings are gone, but a “ghost structure”—outlines of the old buildings—remains, and Oregon’s history is visible through those sculpted bones. If you stand on the pressure-treated deck overlooking Mission Lake and face northeast, looking just past the placards reminding visitors of Jason Lee’s original mission landing site, you’ll see nothing but forest. And then, water. And then open fields filled with daisies. 

But if you keep looking, stretching your vision about a half a mile past that ghostly sculpture, you’ll find 0.02 acres of public land, managed and administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and owned by the American people, sitting right in the middle of Lafollette’s farm. No one currently at the BLM has ever set foot on this piece of land; it just shows up on reports listing its township, range, section, and lot. There are no paths or public access. There are no signs telling you the history or size of this land, as there are all over the state park. All told, it’s only about 878 square feet of space, no bigger than my recently vacated Beaverton apartment. 

 Willamette Mission State Park "ghost sculptures"

In Paul Tigan’s office there are three large maps of Oregon on the wall, each showing the complicated relationship between private landowners and public lands. (“This green is different than this green, which is important,” Paul says, his voice sinewy with excitement.) He is field manager for the BLM’s Marys Peak Field Office. Next to his three-monitor standing desk, another map looms, the history of the transcontinental railroad visible in off-beige checkered squares—formed piece by piece by land sold to private owners to fund the construction of the railroad itself. 

“Before the start of the Department of the Interior [which administers the BLM] in 1849,” Paul says, “you have the General Land Office, which surveyed and sold off knowable parcels of land to bankroll the federal government. That’s how far back our history goes.” Of the approximately 2.3 billion acres of land in the United States, 249 million acres—about 10 percent—are managed by the BLM.

Interest in federally owned lands has been prominent in the news lately with the armed takeover and occupation of the Malheur National Refuge in Eastern Oregon by a right-wing militia group protesting federal land management policies. But the question of what to do with some of these smaller parcels also came up in January with HR 621, a bill sponsored by Representative Jason Chaffetz from Utah’s third congressional district. It proposed disposing of 3.3 million acres of federally owned land. Several of these parcels are in Paul’s administrative territory in Marion County. The bill, which Chaffetz has introduced five times in his congressional career, was withdrawn in February in large part because of outcry from hunters, anglers, and conservationists, among others.

“Dispose,” Paul says, means to move out of government ownership and into private land. So when a bill like this is introduced, its specific goal is to take already surveyed land, often surveyed and resurveyed long ago, and decide what should happen with it moving forward.  

Paul says it’s important to understand the Homestead Act, signed into law by Lincoln in 1862. As written, the act allowed for the permanent possession of land by the following: “any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies.” 

The Homestead Act ended in the continental United States in 1976, which means, Paul says, “we’re not expanding anymore. We’re managing these federal lands, in perpetuity, for the American public.” There’s still timber to be cut, ore to be mined, cattle to be grazed, and oil to be found, but instead of those activities leading to private ownership (and by association settling the western expanse of the nation), now it’s a system of land leased for historic, environmental, or extractive purposes, and administered by the BLM: “The end of the era of disposal,” Paul says, “and the beginning of the era of management.” 

Land that doesn’t fulfill these material expectations, land that for whatever reason can’t be leased in a productive way, is categorized as Zone 3. Zone 1 is a piece of land with historic importance, or environmental importance, often a river or some other body of water. Zone 2 is marginal land, which may or may not have economic, historic, or environmental significance, and Zone 3 is land that has no obvious value or even access and is available for disposal. This was one of the original goals of HR 621: to look at lands that had already been surveyed and noted as such, and to find a way to sell off those lands from public to private ownership. Disposal isn’t so easy, though. Paul says that disposal is a time-consuming and costly affair that includes surveyors, environmental and geological experts, many staff hours, and lots of paperwork. So pieces like the Marion County sliver stay quietly untouched. 

If you read through the 2016 BLM report “Proposed Resource Management Plan/Final Environmental Impact Statement” for Western Oregon, you’ll find charts and charts filled with zone 3 lands. These pieces range wildly in terms of acreage, but there are many that are scattered  small lots, some even smaller than the 0.02 acre parcel near Willamette Mission State Park. Where did this tiny parcel of land come from and just how long has it been there?  

“Land has a tendency to appear,” Paul says. And disappear. Where there was once land, there might not be land anymore after, say, a hundred years of erosion. Where there was never land, it might just accumulate. “Your little parcel of land just might be an oxbow,” he says. Oxbows refer to the shape of the wooden and metal frame on an oxen’s yoke; for land survey purposes, they describe a river’s winding in a long U, a shape that naturally changes with the river over time, occluding and accreting already surveyed land.   

Janet Myers is a former member of the cadastral survey team that does official government survey work. Cadastral is long associated with taxes and governmental action, though, in each mention of the word, all I can imagine is some hollow-boned bird of prey. She says, “The islands that sometimes appear in rivers, those are federal lands. Land is always considered federal unless it’s parceled out to a private owner, or we dispose of it to another owner.” 

Janet explains that donation land claims also have complicated histories: corner marks, those monuments that indicate where we begin and end private and public land, are sometimes from surveys conducted hundreds of years before. When they are later resurveyed, small discrepancies arise. 

Say, for example, a tree is used as a corner of a donated land property in 1870. Attempts are made to keep consistent line to corner line, but perhaps that mark just isn’t flush with the neighboring land. Thus, an orphan piece emerges, a sliver or a crack, just like the small parcel right in the middle of Lafollette’s berry farm: a managed mistake of time and distance. 

Michael Campbell, a BLM spokesman, says he doesn’t want zone 3 areas called “orphans.” I’ve never met Michael in person, but I can only imagine him throwing his hands up at his computer and slowly backing away after reading an email from me. He is clear that every single piece is accounted for, and he’s quite correct. According to the BLM, none of these parcels are lost. “Maybe runaway is a more apt term,” Paul says, and Janet agrees. “We’re not land owners; we’re land managers. The land always belongs to the people.” 

Amid all of this information, some of it incredibly technical and complicated, I can’t stop thinking in metaphor. I can’t stop wondering what the west is today after its long history of expansion.

The corner of Matheny and Wheatland Roads with the 0.02 acre parcel somewhere in the distance

Days after our meeting, Paul writes, “It would appear that your 0.02 acre anomaly goes back at least 150 years.” His emails are always excited and forthcoming, though tempered by years of working through federal regulations and expectations. There is survey information available online for this section from as far back as 1852. The 1864 survey shows a gap between three donation land claims where the 0.02 acre morsel sits. Because of some of the incongruities between these land claims, the surveyors went out again in 1921 to resurvey the land. 

The information is clear, though the implications are cloudier. We know something related to donation land claims and survey issues created this small zone 3 parcel, but that seems to have no effect on what one might do about it. Both Paul and Janet say that any access to the land would have to be through the private owner—in this case, Lafollette's Berry Farm.

This all feels like discovering a moon. Or, more accurately, a whole landscape of tiny moons—there and known but inaccessible. 

I don’t know what it is I hope to find if I ever get to set foot on that little parcel. Most likely, it’s much the same as the rest of the farm sprawling out in dirt and wired vines to the east. But it just feels, in some indescribable way, like there shouldn’t be any orphaned or lost or runaway land in twenty-first century America: land that’s hidden from view; land that’s unknown; land that crowds a lake only one hundred yards wide. I grew up in a place where there was no Bureau of Land Management, because every parcel of land had been spoken for long before the agency’s inception. I grew up on a backyard big enough to play catch with my father. It was land that seemed bigger than any world outside of its hedged boundaries, not a single blade of grass unclaimed.


Government, Land, Place, Public Policy


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