To lift people into prosperity, we must discuss Idaho management of federal lands

Fred Birnbaum Articles

Critics of the notion there is economic value in transferring federal lands to Idaho want Idahoans to believe it’s time to lay this idea to rest.

Let’s be clear: The legal hurdles are huge, as it is difficult to imagine the federal government relinquishing so much land and power easily. However, it is time for Westerners in general and Idahoans in particular to highlight the economic cost of continuing to allow the federal government to squat on Western lands and smother our economy.

The issue of federal land transfer should not be seen as some isolated pursuit designed to appease people who dislike the federal government or simply want to stir up rural voters. Ten Western states have examined federal land transfer, and some, such as Utah, believe there exists real economic value in pursuing the idea.

Curious why we must have this discussion? Visit rural parts of Idaho, like Grangeville, Orofino, Idaho City and Challis, where the economic base has largely evaporated as timber harvesting and mining continues to decline or has disappeared altogether.

Changing how federal lands are managed in Idaho is the key to reversing many of the negative economic trends that have depressed our economic growth for decades. Progressives never tire of pointing out that Idaho’s per capita income is among the lowest of any state in the union, as is K-12 per capita education funding.

We are also told tax receipts are very low on a per capita basis. This last point may seem odd because Idaho’s top income tax rate is higher than all adjacent states with the exception of Oregon, which has no sales tax. Any fair-minded person reviewing the combination of sales and income taxes in Washington (no income tax), Montana (lower income tax and no sales tax), Oregon (higher income tax but no sales tax), Wyoming (no income and lower sales tax), Utah (lower income and roughly the same sales when groceries are accounted for) and Nevada (no income tax) would not say that Idaho is undertaxed.

Perhaps our tax base is just too small.

Progressives, who favor a larger role for government, would have you believe Idaho is failing because it does not spend enough on education and infrastructure and foolishly adopted right-to-work legislation in the 1980s. They have it completely backward.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reveal Idaho’s per capita income as a percentage of national per capita income was more than 90 percent in the mid-1970s (the last year it was more than 90 percent was 1976 – long before right-to-work was enacted) and has never been that high since.

In 2013 it was 80.8 percent of national income.

While it is certainly true that the timber (and mining) industry has changed and the related infrastructure has crumbled in Idaho, we ought to consider the revival of these industries as a key part of the rural economic growth puzzle.

Why is this so and what has that got to do with the possible transfer of federal lands?

The Montana-based Property and Environment Research Center just released a report that compares the revenues and expenses for federal vs. state trust (endowment) lands in Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona. All four states have both federal and state lands used for timber harvesting, mining, grazing and recreation.

On federal lands, the only resource that generates a positive return is mining in contrast with all of the states, including Idaho, that generate a positive return for timber harvesting, grazing, mining and recreation.

In total, the federal government generates only $0.73 in revenue per dollar spent, while states generate $14.51 per dollar spent. The research is thorough and complex, but it exposes this fact: Economic growth could explode if Idaho managed its own lands.

Money the federal government hands back to the state in exchange for holding the land is a tiny fraction of the dollars proper management could generate – and that’s before recent federal cuts to those allotments.

One study might not provide the answers, but it suggests why we must have this debate. If we want to lift families out of poverty, power innovation and properly fund education and transportation initiatives, this debate must continue.

Note: This piece was first published by the Idaho Statesman. Click here to see that article.