Republicans want the federal government to let Idaho manage more of the land within the state’s borders.
They believe the state could do a better job managing the resources on those lands and provide more money for Idaho schools in the process.
To that end, the House Resources and Conservation Committee passed legislation to allow Idaho to join an interstate compact, a working group of sorts, to negotiate with the federal government on the issue.
Only the committee’s three Democrats, Boise Reps. Mat Erpelding and Ilana Rubel, along with Gooding’s Donna Pence, opposed the plan.
Idaho follows Utah’s lead on the federal lands issue. During its session that wrapped up last week, Beehive State lawmakers voted to become the first state to join the compact.
Membership in the compact, bill sponsor Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly, said, would cost little and would come out of the Legislature’s expense accounts. The compact would be advisory in nature, meaning it couldn’t legally bind the state. All of the compact’s decisions, he said, would need approval from lawmakers.
A number of conservative organizations, including the American Lands Council, have championed the idea in years past. They believe America’s Western states get a raw deal from the federal government because it owns huge swaths of state lands.
Ownership estimates vary widely, but the New York Times said in 2012 the federal government holds the title to just more than 50 percent of all Idaho land. Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik, on the other hand, says the feds own about 65 percent.
According to Deseret News research, Idaho is No. 3 on the list of the highest percentage of land owned by the feds. That paper puts the number at just more than 61 percent.
In raw numbers, that means the federal government owns more than 32.6 million of the state’s 52.9 million acres.
Nevada tops that list, with the federal government owning more than 81 percent of that state.
Environmental groups opposed Gestrin’s bill for various reasons, including concerns about costs and public access.
“We’ve opposed this concept for four decades since we’ve been in existence,” said the Idaho Conservation League’s Courtney Washburn. She said management transfer isn’t economically viable and could be unconstitutional.
Greg McReynolds, president of Trout Unlimited, said the concept is unreasonable. “I think this bill is definitely putting the cart before the horse,” he said.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation and the Idaho Farm Bureau supported the bill.
“We have to explore the economic benefits of a transfer,” said IFF Vice President Fred Birnbaum. “It gives Idaho a seat at the table.”
Russ Hendricks, lobbyist for the farm bureau, emphasized the damage federal management has done to Idaho’s economy.
“We have much less timber production,” Hendricks said. “We have much less mining. We have much less grazing. We have much less recreation.”
Hendricks and Birnbaum rejected environmentalists’ assertions that state management would end public access.
“I don’t think the argument is that we would sell these lands,” Birnbaum said.
“Public land would be no less public under state management than it is under federal management,” Hendricks said.
Republican legislators pointed out that better-managed state lands suffer fewer and less-damaging fires in the summer time.
“We’ve seen it personally through our lives,” said Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, of fires on mismanaged federal lands. “It’s sickening and disheartening.”
Even moderate Republican Rep. Fred Wood of Burley voted to pass the bill, but he noted his reservations. The bill, he said, requires the state send a representative to compact meetings, but doesn’t spell out who appoints that position.
“Who do we want?” Wood asked. “Who’s going to appoint that? I think that’s a significant flaw in this piece of legislation.”
The measure now heads to the House floor for consideration.
Note: The Idaho Freedom Foundation publishes IdahoReporter.com.