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Western state lands dominated by federal ownership, management

Western state lands dominated by federal ownership, management

Geoffrey Talmon
April 25, 2014
April 25, 2014

In mid-April lawmakers from a number of Western states, including Idaho, met in Salt Lake City for a Legislative Summit on the Transfer for Public Lands. The summit was held so participants could discuss strategies by which those states might take over control of the federal lands located within their respective borders.

Utah has been pushing the issue more aggressively than the other participant states, having already passed legislation demanding that the federal government relinquish federal lands in Utah to the state of Utah. Utah has also commissioned a study to determine how such lands could be managed if and when they are turned over.

According to the Congressional Research Service, as of 2012 the federal government owned nearly 62 percent of all land in Idaho, 62 percent in Alaska, 67 percent in Utah and 81 percent in Nevada. Even California is nearly 48 percent federally owned.

One of Idaho’s representatives at the Summit, Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said that “It’s time the states in the West come of age. We’re every bit as capable of managing the lands in our boundaries as the states east of Colorado.”

For the sake of comparison, the federal government owns approximately 4 percent of the land in states east of Colorado.

Of course, Idaho is not without its own controversies regarding the management of state lands. While the Idaho Constitution requires that its Land Board to manage state lands for the benefit of Idaho’s Public School Permanent Endowment Fund, the Land Board has been criticized  for its forays into the purchase and operation of commercial properties that compete with private businesses.

Ultimately, because the scope of the federally owned lands is so vast and because there are so many stakeholders with competing interests (federal agencies, federal employees, mining interests, logging interests, ranchers, farmers, recreational enthusiasts, environmental groups, state agencies, state taxpayers, federal taxpayers, etc.), I do not expect any dramatic movement from the federal government on the issue anytime soon.

Considering, however, the degree to which Idaho has become financially dependent  on a federal government that spends substantially more than it takes in, it is wise for Idaho to follow Utah’s lead in considering ways to increase its control over its own resources and reduce its dependence on D.C.

Addressing the federal lands issue may be one way to accomplish that goal.

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