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Controller Shuns Transfer Of Public Lands

Transferring 32 million acres of public lands in Idaho to state ownership would be “ill-advised and a financial disaster” for the state, Controller J.D. Williams says.

Idaho’s congressional delegation has been pushing to allow states to request such transfers.

Williams on Thursday released an analysis he’s made of the financial impact if Idaho were to take control of lands now administered by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.

He concluded that the state would lose more than $90 million per year - about $187 per year per taxpayer.

Bills now in both the House and Senate would allow the transfer of all BLM lands to the states. Idaho senators Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne are co-sponsors of the Senate bill, and Utah Rep. Jim Hansen is author of the House measure. Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho is a co-sponsor of the Hansen bill.

“It just makes sense to have folks in Idaho manage lands in Idaho instead of having the federal government do it,” said Mark Snider, Kempthorne’s press secretary. “This is an issue that needs to be discussed and this is a vehicle to open those discussions.”

Williams said his analysis indicates the BLM and Forest Service spent about $360 million managing public lands in Idaho in 1994 and generated $110.2 million in revenue.

In the northern half of the state - encompassing the Panhandle, Nez Perce and Clearwater national forests - the Forest Service alone spent $72.6 million, and made $14.9 million.

“A handoff of federal lands to the states under (the congressional bills) would be premature and ill-advised, and a financial disaster to the state,” Williams said.

“There are too many unknowns and questions left unanswered at this time for Idaho to take on the financial risks involved, especially at a time when our economic growth is beginning to slow,” Williams said.

Gov. Phil Batt is leery of any transfer of federal lands that doesn’t also transfer money for management. “It would just be too expensive,” said Batt spokeswoman Amy Kleiner.

But Batt supports the idea of giving states the option, she said. He’d also like to let states “cherry pick” the best BLM lands, something the pending legislation wouldn’t allow.

Williams’ report noted that the state Department of Lands spends far less per acre to manage state land, in part because the state doesn’t have to go through the feds’ stringent reviews to ensure compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy Management Act, Endangered Species Act and other restrictions.

“Compliance with these and other environmental protection acts significantly increases operating costs and reduces efficiency of management,” Williams said.

If Idaho were free of such federal constraints and could manage the lands as it does state lands now, Idaho could make a lot of money, Williams said. Idaho manages its state lands solely for the benefit of the public school endowment fund.

“It would give us potentially hundreds of millions of dollars that could build schools and create the best educational system in the world,” Williams said. The money would come “primarily from timber sales.”

But that money isn’t being raised now by federal land managers. “I think we’re much more realistic in how we manage the land,” Williams said. The state also cuts more of its timber, its chief revenue source on state lands.

It is unclear whether the proposed federal legislation would require states to manage BLM and Forest Service lands according to federal environmental rules.

Numerous other questions need to be answered before transfer could be seriously considered, Williams said:

Fire suppression costs. During last year’s big fire season, the Forest Service and BLM spent $90 million battling fires, in addition to the budgeted amount of $25.4 million.

If Idaho takes that responsibility, a lot of money would have to be set aside for forest fires, he said.

BLM has identified more than 100 hazardous waste sites on land under its management, and officials estimate there may be two or three times that many sites yet identified. Williams noted that cleaning up a single state hazardous waste site - the Triumph Mine - will cost $5 million.

“The financial burden from this single site is enough of a financial strain without having to adopt responsibility for sites on BLM lands, some of which may not even be found for years to come,” he said.

Idaho counties received more than $33 million from federal lands in 1994. There would be a huge financial impact on counties if the state received all revenue from federal lands.

The state charges farmers $4.53 per animal each month for grazing; the federal rate is $1.97. The federal bills say all existing leases and permits must be honored. It would be years before the state could change grazing rates, and then “significant increases” would be likely.

“This could have a significant impact on Idaho’s livestock industry,” the report said.

The legislation pending in Congress says the state must take all of the federal land or none. But Williams suggested transferring a small district or national forest to state control to see how it works out.

Overall, he said, taking control of federal land is a bad idea for Idaho.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = From staff and wire reports Staff writer Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.