Can Idaho afford federal management of its natural resources?

Fred Birnbaum Articles

It probably does not come as a surprise to many people that natural resource production has been a bright spot for the US economy coming out of the last recession.

Generally we think about natural gas derived from fracking and oil development using newer drilling technologies. A recent report actually identified the US as having larger oil reserves than either Saudi Arabia or Russia.

There exists opportunity for Idaho, too. I do not suggest that Idaho will be a large player in energy resource development, but the state is known to possess both rare earth minerals and some carbon energy.

And, of course, we have significant timber resources.

Regardless of what natural resource Idaho attempts to develop, the challenge we will face in developing any resource is foreshadowed by a recent Congressional Research Service Report, which compares energy production on federal and private lands. The report notes, from 2010 to 2015 natural gas production increased 55 percent on private lands, but declined 27 percent on federal lands. Production of crude oil shows a similar pattern. From 2010 to 2015, barrels-per-day production increased 113 percent on private lands, but only 0.8 percent on federal lands.

In Idaho we see a similar pattern. Not only are the harvests of timber on U.S. Forest Service lands down more than 90 percent from their 1977 peak, but Idaho increasingly relies on private and state-owned land to support the timber industry.

According to USFS data, there are roughly 16.7 million acres of harvestable timber in Idaho. Of this, 76 percent belongs to the USFS, 17 percent to private landowners, and the state government owns 7 percent as endowment lands.

Well, as you might guess, that 17 percent of private land provides 56 percent of the timber harvest and the 7 percent state piece provides 34 percent. And the 76 percent that belongs to the federal government? The federal lands produce a mere 10 percent of the harvested timber. While these production percentages vary from year to year, only on federal lands has the decline been so dramatic.

Why does this matter? It matters because nearly 62 percent of Idaho is federally owned land Рmostly BLM and USFS land. It also matters because resource jobs pay better wages than average. According to 2014 data from the University of Idaho, forestry and logging jobs paid an average of $51,000 annually, wood-products manufacturing paid $50,000, and paper manufacturing paid $83,000 per year. Across the state, Idaho’s 2014 average wage was $37,957 per year.

When someone tells you that Idaho cannot afford to manage federal lands, perhaps the response should be: Idaho can no longer afford the consequences of federal land management.