Members of the Idaho Legislature’s Federal Lands Interim Committee met at the Capitol Wednesday to ponder the possibility of state acquisition of land currently under federal control within the Gem State. For approximately seven hours, the committee, comprised of members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, heard testimony on the proposal from both private individuals and groups, and regional elected officials from across the state.
“Counties with vast timber resources, like the one in which I serve, are penalized by not being able to utilize their resources,” testified Valley County Commissioner Gordon Cruickshank. Like many other supporters of the land acquisition idea, most often referred to as a proposed “land transfer,” Cruickshank believes that federal government policy is preventing the use of timber and other natural resources found on the lands that are under federal control, resources that could generate both business and tax revenues.
“I hear a lot about maintaining access to these lands from opponents of the transfer, but the truth is that we are losing access to public lands under federal control. Roads are being closed regularly, and yet many of these roads existed long before the national Forest Service even existed,” Cruikshank told the committee.
On April 2, the Idaho Senate approved two legislative resolutions concerning Idaho taking control of the federal land within its borders. House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 21, which passed 26-6 with one abstention, calls for a study to be conducted on how Idaho would best approach the federal government with a demand for the land. HCR 22, which provides for the state to issue a “demand for title” to the federal government, passed by a narrower margin, 21-13.
Both measures had passed previously in the House of Representatives on March 21.
Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik, a supporter of the land transfer idea, told committee members that if they were accessible, mineral and timber resources could produce high-paying jobs and a better economy in his county. “I hear all the time that we can survive on a recreational economy,” he stated, “but without these kinds of high-paying jobs, we don’t have a recreational economy.”
“Next year my county won’t have adequate revenues to fund basic transportation services,” said Larry Yergler, a commissioner from Shoshone County. “We won’t have money to plow snow from the roads. With these circumstances I’m finding it difficult to uphold my sworn duties as an elected official,” he said to officials in explaining his support for the state taking control of the land.
A voice of opposition from among county officials came from Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen. “I am really opposed to this transfer because I think it is completely unmanageable for the state. I share the vision of commissioners Chmelik and Cruickshank because we need utilization of the lands. But I believe we can achieve this by building better relationships with existing federal land managers, many of whom are Idahoans.”
Schoen told the committee that Blaine County is rich in minerals, but that accessing the minerals is an expensive endeavor, one that he does not believe the state or county can afford to fund. Believing that “this proposal will not get beyond the United States Supreme Court, if it even gets that far,” Schoen added that “we all need to become better listeners in order to move forward, and we need to begin understanding and respecting one another’s core values.”
If the federal land transfer actually comes to pass, it is likely that those lands would be placed under the control of the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL), a state agency established to manage the original endowment lands that were granted by the federal government at statehood.
To this point, Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, posed a question about the IDL to Cruickshank.
“I’ve been highly critical of our department of lands,” Burgoyne said. “According to my calculations, our state is making about $25 per acre in profit on our state’s lands, and when I have it suggested that we will generate more revenue by moving federal lands to our underperforming Department of Lands, I’m troubled by that. Could you give me your thoughts on that?”
Responded Cruickshank: “I recognize that we’ll have high-producing years and low-producing years,” Cruickshank replied. “But a percentage of something coming back to our county is better than nothing, and we get really get nothing from the federal lands now.”
Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, a committee member, asked Chmelik “would law enforcement and firefighting become the financial responsibility of the state in your proposed scenario?”
“We probably would have to fund those things,” Chmelik replied. “But if we manage our land properly, we can do this. Perhaps we need to develop a transition plan.”
During a break in the committee hearing, Yergler told IdahoReporter.com that he believes Shoshone County could begin realizing revenue both through mining and grazing enterprises, if the county’s lands were released from federal regulatory controls. “County commissioners across the border in Montana don’t like what we’ve got right now any better than I do,” he said.
The committee also heard testimony from dozens of private individuals that covered pros and cons of a transfer.
- “I am a resident of Idaho who came here from Kentucky,” said Carol Wiens. “When I lived in Kentucky, I searched high and low for places to hike, hunt and fish. I couldn’t find places, because all the land was privately owned, and it is frightening to think of that happening in Idaho.”
- “People in Washington, D.C., think that Idahoans are too inept to manage their own lands,” said Viki Purdy, a small business owner from New Meadows. “Like Obamacare, federal land management is what is inept.”
- “The state in no way can afford to manage the kinds of fires that we’ve had in the past several years,” said Dr. Karen Balch, a veterinarian from Cascade. “The federal forest workers are among the finest in the world, and if we tried this we’d be putting Idahoans lives at risk.”
The Legislature is expected to take up the issue of a federal land transfer during the 2014 legislative session.