States Not Thrilled With Offer Of Federal Lands Some Idaho Officials Worry About Higher Expenses, Less Access

There are 40 miles of almost continuous clearcuts here, nicknamed the “nuclear zone.”

It’s a preview of what will happen if the newest cries to transfer federal lands to state and private hands succeed, environmentalists say.

Considering the aesthetic wreck, it’s not surprising that environmentalists use this area east of Clarkia - the second largest timber-producing area managed by the state - as a backdrop for opposing such a move.

But considering the revived myth of the independent Westerner and the clamor for states’ rights, it is surprising to find how many in state and county government are skeptical.

Sure, they want control of the land. But they don’t want to wean themselves from federal dollars that come courtesy of the present landowners - taxpayers across the nation. Or take responsibility when there is hazardous waste contamination.

These land transfers also will shove livestock ranchers closer to the financial brink. It means local taxpayers could be soaked for more and sportsmen could have less access to public ground.

Bills in the U.S. House and Senate give states the option of taking all of the U.S. Bureau Land Management ground within their borders. Everyone in Idaho’s all-Republican congressional delegation, except Rep. Mike Crapo, has signed on.

Another Senate bill creates a commission to put some BLM, Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation land in state and private hands. The commission will answer to no one and will present Congress a list which, once introduced, cannot be amended or stopped.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, is a prime sponsor.

Such ideas come before Congress every few decades and die. And flaws in current legislation will at least make the latest transfer attempts difficult. However, people regard these efforts more seriously because of the current “shift it all to the states” mood in Congress and expect action after the next election.

Why try?

The sales pitch is that states manage land less expensively and could do the same with federal ground. It also would relieve the West of federal bureaucratic intrusion. Meanwhile, lawmakers promise to make sure most of the land can’t fall into private hands.

The supposed beneficiaries disagree with nearly every point.

“Some counties feel the state Legislature is more difficult to deal with than the federal government,” said Jeff Arnold, associate legislative director for the National Association of Counties. A Forest Service district ranger has a mandate to listen to county officials. Legislators don’t.

Some counties also believe they would be winners only if the land is ultimately transferred to the private sector and the property tax rolls, Arnold said.

Hunters, fishermen and backpackers recoil, certain that it means they will be locked out of their favorite playgrounds. “I view all of these proposals as the ultimate form of gun control,” says Walt Minnick, who is running for Craig’s Senate seat in 1996. “You still have your gun, but no place to use it.”

This sentiment is so potent that the primary author of the BLM land-transfer bill, Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., promises to change the bill to block most land sales to private buyers.

Higher prices

Putting federal lands in state hands could be costly for local taxpayers and livestock ranchers.

In 1994, Idaho counties and school districts received $33 million from the Forest Service and BLM. Those dollars come from federal timber sales and payments in lieu of taxes on the federal acres in each county. The payments would stop if these bills pass.

County taxpayers would pay higher property taxes in order to keep the same level of services, said Lorna Jorgensen of the Idaho Association of Counties.

The Idaho Constitution requires state lands be managed for maximum long-term financial return to schools. So public education scores well under the proposed schemes.

But ranchers lose.

The federal government charges less than half as much for its grazing leases as the state. Once Idaho rates kick in that “could have a dramatic impact on ranchers,” Jorgensen said.

The cost of doing business

Idaho would need $90 million and 2,500 more employees to manage the 32 million acres of Forest Service and BLM lands, State Controller J.D. Williams estimated. That doesn’t include the price of fighting wildfires - $90 million in 1994 - the last big fire year. Or of dealing with between 100 and 300 toxic waste sites on BLM ground.

On top of that, there could be expensive litigation over which federal regulations still would rule management of the land, Williams said.

He likes the idea of the state managing some federal land on an experimental basis. But “the proposals (now) in Congress raise more questions than they answer and have the potential to be a financial disaster for our state,” Williams said.

Industry says there’s a brighter side to the financial question. The state produces timber for less cost, said Ken Kohli of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association.

He believes the state could do a better management job even if the federal environmental rules remain - something not addressed in the proposed bills.

The state manages for less money for three important reasons, critics of the land transfers argue. The State Department of Lands has a single goal - maximum financial return - which is much simpler than simultaneously considering the needs of grizzly bears, backpackers, snowmobilers and downstream water users.

The state’s task also is simpler because it only deals with 2.5 million acres. The Forest Service and BLM contend with 32 million acres in Idaho alone.

The Idaho Department of Lands has one hydrologist and one fisheries biologist. Compared to federal agencies, Idaho does little analysis of the effects of a timber sale on watersheds, wildlife and fisheries, said Barry Rosenberg of the Selkirk-Priest Basin Association.

Transferring the lands to the state will eliminate public oversight, contends Rosenberg. You can’t appeal logging on Idaho state land.

If someone wants a court injunction while they fight a state timber sale, they have to put up a bond worth 10 percent of the sale price. If they lose the case, they forfeit the bond.

“That makes it prohibitive for the average citizen to consider challenging a sale in court,” Rosenberg said, “and protects corporate interests.”

Others say it’s all about clout.

“Idaho industry prefers (the land) be managed at the state level because Idaho industry is more successful at influencing the state than the federal government,” Minnick said. “This is the epitome of a special-interest bill - the payoff for the half-million dollars of natural resource PAC contributions my opponent has received since he was elected to the Senate.”

Craig’s press aides say this is only an effort “to give the grass roots the opportunity to decide if the states want the land.”

How will they treat the land?

One Idaho Department of Lands worker calls the transfer idea “just an attempt to circumvent environmental laws.” But industry argues the state’s management is more environmentally friendly than the bureaucracy-laden Forest Service. The east side of Priest Lake is an example of an intensely managed state forest that looks almost untouched from the lake shores.

The water quality is better than nearby Forest Service land, there’s more wildlife and more recreation use, Kohli claimed. Thirteen state employees “are putting up 15 or 20 million board feet of timber a year, while across the lake there’s three times as many (Forest Service) people putting up 1 million board feet,” he said.

The difference between Priest Lake and the Floodwood is easy to explain. “That area is so visible, plus rich people live on Priest Lake,” said Charles Pezeshki, a college professor and director of the Idaho-based Clearwater Biodiversity Project. “Territory like the Floodwoods, owned by Potlatch and the state, is out of sight and out of mind.”

The state is taking 47 million board feet a year off of the district that includes the Floodwood - more than twice the amount taken from Priest Lake. And a lawsuit is forcing more careful management of Priest Lake, environmentalists say.

In either case, Pezeshki believes it’s useless to argue over whether to log. “Both environmental groups and industry have been mired in this idiot clearcut-replant debate,” Pezeshki said. “Let’s accept the consequences of our land management practices and decide if that’s what we want to do to a particular place.”

In and around the Floodwood, the consequences often are erosion gullies, few trees left along streams to catch dirt washing off the hillsides and to cool the water for fish. Those streams, meandering around the base of successively skinned hillsides, are choked with sediment.

Most of the clearcuts are on Potlatch land, state officials argue. Their work looks like clearcuts to the layman, they acknowledge, but actually involve leaving more trees.

In either case, “wishing the state and industry are going to do anything different than they do is naive,” Pezeshki said.

From a short-term profit and loss standpoint, that makes sense, added Larry McLaud of the Idaho Conservation League. When trees get about 80 years old, they quit growing as fast. State and private industry can cut those trees or risk insects, disease or fire nibbling away at the balance sheet.

That doesn’t consider other benefits of less drastic logging - cleaner water, cleaner air, more fish and wildlife, trees decaying and adding nutrients back to the soil, deadfall soaking up water and lessening the possibility of floods, McLaud said.

Industry says the Floodwood isn’t a fair example of what could happen if the state or private companies take control of federal land. Simultaneously, it defends the logging job.

It was “done for good scientific reasons,” Kohli said. The trees in the Floodwood were all old and decaying.

The state, federal and private land in the area has all been logged in similar fashion, Kohli added. So the Floodwood would probably look like this no matter who is in charge.

And that, Pezeshki says, “sounds that the same old stupid rationale for cutting old growth.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)

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