Letters From the West

Commissioners seek fairness on federal payments like property taxes

Skip Brandt, a former Republican senator who today serves on the Idaho County Commission, has divided loyalties.

Brandt supports the resolution the Idaho Legislature passed on a party-line vote that demands the federal government turn over all of its land to the state. Last week Brandt testified before a House Resources subcommittee in favor of Republican Rep. Raul Labrador’s bill that would set up pilot programs to allow state foresters to sell timber off of federal lands.

Skip Brandt is an Idaho County Commissioner who is involved in the Clearwater Basin Collaborative.

Skip Brandt is an Idaho County Commissioner who is involved in the Clearwater Basin Collaborative.

Brandt also is a member of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, a group of environmentalists, sportsmen, loggers, timber industry executives, local officials and motorized recreation representatives who are working with the Forest Service. They are working to develop plans and funding for forest restoration work, recreation, job creation and even wilderness protection.

The three ideas don’t work together. If the state has the land it has the burden of the management costs as well and environmentalists and sportsmen groups will fight forever to prevent it. The pilot trusts are aimed solely at cutting timber and giving the proceeds to rural counties.

The collaborative seeks to develop a new path that will lead to more of what every group wants than the gridlock that has gripped federal forests since the forest wars of the 1980s and 1990s between environmentalists and the timber industry. One Idaho lawmaker compared it to the French people who worked with the Nazis during the occupation in Wold War II.

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

That Brandt can hold all these views means he’s either brilliant or a pretty good politician.

The strong majority of Idahoans do not share lawmakers hope to see all of the federal land outside of wilderness, national parks, and other exceptions in the resolution go to state control. Fewer want it all sold off to give Idaho the tax base of eastern states.

Brandt is skeptical of that and is especially certain that a majority of the residents of his county share his view.

So when he was before the House committee and asked how much timber had been harvested from the national forest in his county because of the collaborative he said none. None?

Both the regional forest Faye Krueger and the Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Rick Branzell have said that tens of millions of board feet of timber has been cut because of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative group’s work. Hundreds of jobs have been created.

Timber industry officials back them up.

So Brandt may have exaggerated. He, like many Idahoans who remember the big federal harvests of the 1950s through the 1980s, feels cheated that it ended. Some are bitter and others simply sad that they have to watch so much forest burn instead of be hauled away in logging trucks.

For county officials like Brandt the loss of the 25 percent fund, which diverted a quarter of the Forest Service’s timber receipts to the counties where it was cut, has forced them to go begging to the federal government to cover the costs of schools, roads, law enforcement and other mandated programs.

One of the answers is to permanently fully fund the payments in lieu of taxes program that pays local governments based on how much federal land they have. Idaho County has 85 percent of its land base owned by the federal government.

But consider Custer County, which is 94 percent federal. Commissioner Lin Hintze of Mackay has championed this issue in Congress seeking fairness for rural counties like his.

Republican Sen. Mike Crapo described payments in lieu of taxes correctly as essentially property tax at a recent forum on the federal budget sponsored by the McClure Center for Public Policy. Commissioners like Brandt and Hintze should not have to go begging to the federal government for the funds that pay for basic services in their counties.

Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson told E&E Reporter Phil Taylor last week that a budget deal that would fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a priority for environmental groups, and the county payments may be possible.

“If they can find a way to tie full funding for PILT payments, make it mandatory, and Secure Rural Schools with Land and Water Conservation Fund, you might have something that could be sold,” Simpson told Taylor.

That takes us back to the Clearwater Basin Collaboration. For such a deal to be cut, national environmental and sportsmen’s groups, like the Wilderness Society and Trout Unlimited, and the Idaho Conservation League will need to be on board. It may be the relationships forged by Brandt and Hintze that lead to a solution all can support.

This won’t resolve the debate over how we manage the resources we all share on our public lands. But it would ease the burden so the discussions can be about what best for the communities and the land.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West