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Look to Utah for Idaho federal lands strategy model

Look to Utah for Idaho federal lands strategy model

Wayne Hoffman
December 5, 2014
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December 5, 2014

In 2014, Idaho lawmakers voted for the state to begin the process of gaining control over lands now managed by the federal government. The Legislature empaneled a special committee to review the issue and find answers.

But the committee didn’t accomplish as much as it should have. Instead of figuring out how to make the lands transfer happen, the panel spent most of its time asking for public feedback on whether the transfer should occur, even though the Legislature had already committed to its course of action.

As a result, state lawmakers should be poised to address the issue once again in 2015. The first step would be to reauthorize the committee to continue its work during the coming 24 months. The next would be to determine what Utah is learning about the potential economic windfall should the state put public land resources to productive use.

Utah university economists released a study last week concluding that the major criticism of the proposal—that states can ill afford to manage lands held by the federal government—is unfounded. The 780-page analysis says the state will not only cover the costs of management as well as costs associated with fire suppression, but that the state will actually generate income off of such a plan.

The researchers from the University of Utah, Utah State and Weber State University figured that it would cost $280 million to take over and manage 31 million acres of public land, but that the state could collect $331 million from multiple uses on the land, including energy production, recreation and natural resources.

Utah’s study notes a high reliance on oil and gas production, something that may not be replicable in Idaho. But Idaho’s public lands have other significant potential economic uses—value that has not been tapped due to the management practices imposed by the federal government. Idaho lawmakers need to find out—sooner rather than later—the potential economic impact of reopening the use of Idaho’s resources.

The governor and the Legislature would do well to set aside money for a study similar to the one Utah conducted and is acting upon. Utah’s research cost $500,000.

After the Utah study was released, the American Lands Council, which has been advocating state management of Western lands, said the idea that we can’t afford to manage our own lands has officially been debunked. The council said the bottom line is “we cannot afford NOT to manage our own public lands. Our economy depends on it.”

Naysayers, like soon-to-be-former Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, deride the concept as a non-starter, telling a crowd yet again recently that the public lands transfer is never gonna happen, so we may as well give up and go home.

He’s correct only if we’re unwilling to consider the possibilities and understand the alternatives to the status quo. If we do nothing, Idaho’s economy will always suffer at the hands of the federal government’s land mismanagement. That is the foreseeable future: summers of smoke-filled skies and forests ablaze.

However, if we’re willing to act as Utah and other states are, Idaho might get to experience the full range of economic opportunity, independence and vibrancy that has been missing from our resource-deprived communities for years. That’s why action toward state control of public lands is one of the 2015 Legislature’s most important tasks.

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