Letters From the West

State Lands experts say Idaho could turn profit with federal land transfer

Idaho could net $51 million to $75 million annually if it convinced the federal government to turn over 16,400,000 acres of federal public land to the state.

That’s the conclusion of  State Management of Federal Lands in Idaho a quick analysis done by the Idaho Department of Lands, in response to lawmakers considering demanding a federal public land transfer like Utah has done. The profit figure was based on the revenues that could be returned after a 15-year transition of 7 million acres of forest land foresters estimated could yield 800 million board feet of timber annually.

Another 9.5 million acres of rangeland were considered a part of the transfer but the agency estimated there would be no profit in it for the state. And unlike Utah, there is no known oil and gas resources on the lands proposed for transfer and not a lot of known minerals.

Tom Schultz, Idaho Department of Lands director

Tom Schultz, Idaho Department of Lands director

The state also would have to reserve the right to reject any lands from transfer that had abandoned mines or other hazardous wastes that could increase the state’s financial liability, State Lands Department Director Tom Schultz said in a letter to the chairmen of the House and Senate resource committees.

“This analysis is a “’napkin approach’” to determining the amount of federal lands in Idaho that would be hypothetically transferred to State management under assumptions similar to Utah HB 148, along with a very basic examination of estimated costs and revenues associated with that management based on our own practices as a State land management agency,” Schultz wrote.

The ballpark guess has a number of assumptions and caveats underlying its conclusion.

First of course is that the federal government would give in to the questionable legal theory behind the entire Utah idea. Second, that specially protected areas would be excluded.

These include:
• All roadless areas
• Lands that are National Grasslands, managed by the Forest Service
• National Monuments
• National Conservation Areas
• National Recreation Areas
• Wilderness
• Wilderness Study Areas
• Uplands of Wild and Scenic Rivers
• Historic and Scenic Trails
• National Wildlife Refuges
• U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
• U.S. Corps of Engineers
• U.S. Department of Defense
• U.S. National Wildlife Service
• U.S. National Park Service
• U.S. Department of Energy
• Indian Reservations.

So only 16,400,000 acres of the 34,500,000 acres of federal land would be transferred under the hypothetical.

The federal government paid approximately $195 million to suppress wildfires in Idaho in 2012. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management spent an estimated $275 million to manage their lands in 2012 beyond fire, not counting research.

The Lands analysis predicts firefighting costs for the 16,400,000 acres that would be transferred based on its own costs on it lands to be only $45 million annually. The federal government would still fight fires on the remaining 18.1 million acres it would keep.

And while the lands would still be open to the public, the profit does not take into account the costs of providing trails, campsites and other recreational facilities. Lands said another agency would have to handle that with out making an estimate of how much that would cost.

Republican Rep. Judy Boyle, of Midvale, one of the lawmakers supporting the idea said the analysis shows the state would not be bankrupted by such a plan nor be forced to sell of the land, which she absolutely opposes.

“This is not the intent to sell off this land,” Boyle said. “It would still be public land because that makes Idaho, Idaho.”

The state also would have to meet most of the environmental laws including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, the two law that have done the most to limit logging and grazing. It would not have to follow the National Environmental Policy Act.

The analysis includes no consideration of how Indian treaty rights might be affected in such a transfer. It also it not apparent that they include the cost of maintaining more than 30,000 miles of forest roads they would inherit.

But Boyle said she had only briefly looked at the analysis. So far no bill has been introduced and there is no reason that Idaho would have to follow the model of Utah, she said.

Schultz is scheduled to testify next week before a House Resources subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations in Washington, D.C. about federal land transfers to states.

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.

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