August 17, 2011 in Idaho

Idaho wants to manage federal land, help counties

Associated Press
 

BOISE — Idaho’s rural counties want Washington, D.C., to let the state manage federal land as a way to boost their finances amid threats to a program that has propped up local budgets for nearly a decade.

But to some environmental groups and others, the plan smacks of previous efforts by Idaho to take over public land from the federal government that failed.

The Idaho Land Board, with support from Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, on Tuesday threw its support behind a pilot program to place 200,000 acres of national forests under state Department of Lands’ oversight. The Idaho Statesman reports the state would manage the land to benefit rural counties.

For eight years, counties have been the beneficiaries of a federal law that has replaced dwindling timber sale receipts. It sends about $13.7 million annually to Idaho. But with national debt cutting a priority, that money is in doubt.

“You had me at good morning,” Otter said at Tuesday’s Land Board meeting, on his backing of the initiative.

Despite Idaho’s support, environmental groups and others are skeptical the federal government will turn over national forest land to state hands.

John Freemuth, a Boise State University political science professor, served on a panel organized by Idaho a decade ago called the Federal Lands Task Force that came up with similar ideas. He quit that effort when its members, mostly supporters of the timber and grazing industries, refused to recognize national interests in those lands.

While this latest proposal keeps national forests under federal ownership, Freemuth still isn’t convinced it’s that different from what was proposed 10 years ago.

“What this does is builds barricades again,” Freemuth said.

The Wilderness Society says getting the federal government to agree will be difficult.

“We’re interested in finding solutions, but this presents a lot of challenges that are going to be hard to overcome,” said John McCarthy, one of the group’s representatives in Boise.

For eight years, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act has helped replace revenues for counties and school districts located in areas with a lot of federal forest but where timber sale receipts that had traditionally fueled local government had all be evaporated. The act is informally named “Craig-Wyden” after Idaho U.S. Sen. Larry Craig and Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who helped win its passage.

With deep federal budget cuts coming, the future of the funds is in doubt.

Supporters of Idaho’s proposed pilot program say if the money evaporates, they’ll need to find a replacement — or else.

“It will leave us no choice but to cut services or raise taxes,” said Dan Denning, a commissioner in heavily forested Boundary County in Idaho’s far north, on the Canadian border.

“The goal is to get us away from those federal payments,” said Gordon Cruickshank, chairman of the Valley County Commission.

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