Letters From the West

Congressional delegation stops short of supporting federal land transfer

Placer Creek on the Panhandle National Forest in Idaho

Placer Creek on the Panhandle National Forest in Idaho

Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo said getting Congress to approve transferring federal lands to western states would be difficult but not out of the question.

“Allowing states to manage federal lands would be more likely to get a positive hearing in Congress, as opposed to the outright transfer of ownership,” he said.

The Idaho Senate will decide this week whether to approve a resolution that demands the federal government transfer all of the federal land in Idaho to the state. The bill, based on a law approved by Utah and under under consideration in other western states, is based on a legal argument that the federal government had promised to sell all of its lands and give the states 5 percent of the proceeds.

One of two House resolutions setting up a public land interim committee includes the demand but does not authorize any action to enforce it. Idaho’s Congressional delegation expressed support for state rights but did not specifically support the politically unpopular idea of transferring federal land to the state.

“I share the legislature’s concern with the overbearing federal land management policies,” said Republican Rep. Raul Labrador. “They have seen the things that I have seen regarding forest health—that State forests are managed better, are healthier and create more economic growth and recreational opportunities than federally managed forests.”

Crapo said he has seen great success with collaboration and that method is seeing increased buy-in all the time, using the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, following the Owyhee Initiative, and the Payette and Boise Forest Collaboratives as examples.
The Idaho House approved the transfer resolution Thursday on a 55-13 party-line vote. It says the state would transfer back to the federals government, national parks, monuments, wilderness areas, Indian reservations, Department of Defense and Department of Energy lands after it gained title.
“I fully understand their frustration with the current management of federal lands and the undue influence of the courts in how we manage those lands,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service.. “I’m frustrated by it as well and have worked to address it in each of the two Interior funding bills that I have put forward in the House of Representatives.”

Republican Sen. Jim Risch, who spent 22 years in the Idaho Legislature, said he “steadfastly opposes” weighing in on issues of this nature, whether it be the health exchange or this resolution.

Labrador reintroduced this month his Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, first proposed in 2012, to set up forest trusts on national forests, which would be managed by states to send the proceeds to rural counties. Gov. Butch Otter supports a similar proposal, testifying before Congress and advocating to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack for a pilot project.

Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney expressed support for the plan publicly after talking with Otter when he campaigned in Idaho. But under all of the forest trust proposals the federal government would still hold title to the public land, which polls of even Republicans in Idaho  show support.

“It’s frustrating that the federal government controls such a large portion of our state,” Labrador said. “I will continue to watch the Idaho Legislature’s actions regarding state control of federal lands and how best to move Idaho’s economy in the right direction.”

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