How did the state’s payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) to counties for publicly owned land become such a touchy issue in Washington in the last six years?

Two reasons, basically:

• The amount of land owned and managed by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has continued to grow — from 6,214 acres in 1940 to 261,093 acres in 1970, and more than doubling since then to 636,703 acres. Over the last five years alone, the department has added nearly 60,000 acres.

• Around 2009, counties began to realize they were eligible for a greater piece of the state’s financial pie than they’d been enjoying. When they began taking advantage of that, the state responded by freezing the payments at those 2009 levels for 13 counties in Eastern Washington.

The difference came in the methodology used by counties to determine their PILT — which the state must pay to make up for all of that public land taken off the counties’ tax rolls.

Prior to 2009, counties could determine what the state owed them in PILT by up to three different rates — the rate established in 1984, the last time the Legislature had frozen PILT payments; a flat rate of 70 cents per acre of state wildlife land within the county; or the “open space” land rate.

The latter is the most advantageous rate for landowners, giving them a 50 percent reduced tax rate for offering up their lands for public benefit — opening it up for fishing and hunting, for example, or allowing a municipality to build athletic fields for the public.