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Eye On Boise

Federal land transfer issue may go to interim committee

Legislation seeking to transfer federal lands into state ownership likely won't be ready this year, Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Spence reports; he reports that House Resources Chairman Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, now is looking to an interim legislative committee to draft such a bill. Click below for Spence's full report, via the AP.

Land transfer bill unlikely this year
By William L. Spence, Lewiston Tribune

BOISE - Legislative efforts to force the transfer of public lands from federal to state ownership may spill over into 2014.

Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said a draft resolution laying out the case for state ownership has been prepared and is being circulated privately prior to introduction.

However, a related bill that actually mandates the transfer probably won't be ready this session.

"We want an interim study committee to draft that," Denney said.

The bill would be similar to legislation approved in Utah last year, demanding the federal government turn over public lands to the state by Dec. 31, 2014.

National parks, monuments, wilderness areas, Indian reservations and military bases were exempt from transfer by the Utah bill. Should the feds ignore the deadline, state lawmakers would have to pursue legal action, negotiation or some other approach designed to meet their goal.

Denney said the Idaho committee would craft the legislation, determine which federal lands should be exempt from transfer and further evaluate the costs and benefits of the move. It would also consider how to accomplish the transfer, should the federal government actually agree to it.

Utah set up a similar committee last summer. It reported in November that the type of large-scale land transfer envisioned by lawmakers was "too complex and too far-reaching for rapid or hasty examination," and recommended that a new state agency or commission be created to conduct the required investigations.

The report noted that the federal government earned almost $465 million off its public lands in Utah in 2011, at a cost of $267 million. However, $198 million of that was transferred to the state and counties for royalties and payments in lieu of taxes; consequently, it barely broke even on its management costs.

The Idaho Department of Lands released its own "back-of-the-napkin" analysis last week, suggesting the state could earn $51 million to $75 million by applying its school trust lands management philosophy to 6.9 million acres of national forestland. Another 9.5 million acres of federal grazing lands wouldn't necessarily produce any profit.

Speaking at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter said the trust lands model has served Idaho and other states very well over the years, generating revenue for beneficiaries while maintaining forest health and reducing the danger of catastrophic fires.

The U.S. Forest Service has about 16 million acres of timberland in Idaho, Otter said, yet 90 percent of the state's annual timber harvest comes from 1.3 million acres of state forest land and 2.8 million acres of private forests.

"Timber harvests on federal lands in Idaho are at the lowest they have been since 1952," he said. "In 2012, the Forest Service harvested an estimated 100 million board feet of timber in Idaho. In stark contrast, the state harvested 356 million board feet, and private owners harvest 634 million board feet."

Otter encouraged the U.S. House Subcommittee on Public Lands to consider a large-scale pilot project - something in the neighborhood of 2.5 million acres - that could demonstrate how a state trust model or similar approach would work on national forest lands.

"Right now you're spending a lot more fighting fires than you are on maintenance," he said. "We need to get back to healthy forest management."

Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Chairman Silas Whitman also spoke to the congressional committee Tuesday. While he didn't directly disagree with Otter, he said the tribe takes a broader approach toward forest management than is typical under the state trust model.

"The tribe manages its lands to produce jobs and revenue but just as importantly we manage to benefit fish and wildlife habitat and healthy ecosystems," he said. "Balancing multiple interests is difficult, but the tribe rejects the concept of a 'zero sum' competition" between employment on the one hand and fish and wildlife on the other.

Whitman said any proposal to transfer ownership or management of federal lands to the state also raises concerns about the tribe's treaty rights, which provide for access and traditional uses on 13 million acres of national forest land.

"These are obligations the United States cannot subcontract away," he said.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said American Indian treaty rights are just one of the issues proponents must keep in mind when they talk about state management of federal lands - or worse, the "snake oil solution" of transferring federal ownership to the states.

"These are complex issues," he said. "To think the problems just disappear if we turn these lands over to the states is a fantasy."


Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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