The discussion of federal lands in Idaho is a national issue which is problematic because the federal government “owns” over 50 percent of the land in the states west of the Great Plains.
In contrast, less than 5 percent of the land in the rest of the country, land in the Midwest, South, East, is federally owned. At 62 percent, Idaho has one of the highest percentages of federal ownership.
The “nationalization” of the federal public lands debate in the West has tilted the political balance in favor of the current status quo – top down federal control from Washington, D.C. Idaho residents who support federal control have their clout amplified by national support for federal control. That has drowned out voices calling for local control of Idaho lands.
This political balance was on display at the Idaho Capitol last week on back-to-back days. Small-scale dredge miners supported House Bill 51 with the hope that its passage would provide relief from heavy-handed federal oversight of their tiny operations. They don't want to pick a fight with the federal government; they just want to earn a living.
The very next day, a coalition including the Idaho Wildlife Federation and the Idaho Sportsmen’s Caucus Advisory Council held a rally on the Capitol steps under the banner, “Keep Your Hands Off Our Public Lands.” The rally centered on the notion the state and its residents could not be trusted to manage the federally owned public lands and access for hunting and recreation would be constrained or eliminated without federal control.
Not mentioned in the pamphlets they handed out, but conceded privately: the federal government is doing a poor job managing Idaho's lands.
The key problem is urban and out-of-state land users get the benefit of access to these lands without the economic penalty faced by those living adjacent to them, who can’t earn a livelihood from them in the traditional sense; timber harvesting and mining. Stated another way: if tourism, hunting, and angling provided a good enough living, why would Idaho’s per capita income have dropped as these industries declined?
Those who counsel patience and collaboration with departments like the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Environmental Protection Agency surely have a point; these agencies have legal claim to some of their actions, although certainly not all of them. The problem is that time is not on the side of rural people in Idaho. The economic devastation wrought by federal mismanagement is visible to anyone who travels to our small towns.
Legislation like Idaho House Bill 51 is a clarion call from those who have been economically dispossessed to those in urban areas and to federal employees with safe sinecures from paymasters in Washington, D.C.