BOISE – A chairman of a legislative committee studying the pros and cons of the state taking control of federal land in Idaho has a simple message for the public and his colleagues: Be patient.
Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, vowed that the Federal Lands Interim Committee he co-chairs will take its time to study all the angles, benefits and consequences of such a big idea. The first few meetings will be devoted to education before members turn their focus to a report and recommendation due to the Legislature in 2015.
“These first few meetings will be more educational than anything else,” Winder said as part of his opening remarks at the panel’s first meeting Friday.
The committee is charged with following up on a resolution approved by lawmakers earlier this year demanding that the federal government cede most of the public land it oversees in Idaho to the state.
A variety of federal agencies manages more than 53,000 square miles of forest, rangeland and in many cases roadless wilderness areas. That’s an area about the size of Arkansas.
The U.S. Forest Service oversees the majority of that land, estimated at 32,000 square miles, followed by the Bureau of Land Management and a handful of other agencies.
One motivation for a state takeover is generating additional revenue for the state. Officials with the Idaho Department of Lands told the panel Friday that the state could receive between $50 million and $75 million in revenue annually for public schools, universities and other institutions by allowing more timber harvest and other activities.
During the daylong meeting, lawmakers heard competing versions of history and legal theory on the idea of federal transfer of public lands to states.
Donald Kochan, a law professor at Chapman University in California, said critics of federal transfer are too quick to dismiss the government’s implied promise to dispose of all of its federal lands as part of compacts written when Western states were created.
Kochan, an advocate of federal transfer of lands, said more study is needed to determine how the Idaho delegates at the time of statehood viewed the compact and any handover of federal acreage.
But Idaho Assistant Attorney General Steve Strack said the delegates and state leaders at the time were clear on that question. Strack cited multiple references in which delegates referred to the more than 3 million acres of federal lands that were deeded into state trust lands for schools as “grants.”
The resolutions passed earlier this year had wide support among the Republican-dominated Legislature. But the idea also has critics, including the Idaho Conservation League, which believes a federal transfer would spark a wholesale sell-off of acreage into private hands.
The committee is expected to meet at least two more times this year.