As Idaho Department of Lands Director Tom Schultz presents his budget request to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, one item he’s requesting – an additional forest stewardship position in the department’s Coeur d’Alene office – could relate to the Legislature’s ongoing push to take over federal lands. Schultz told JFAC the position could help with efforts to collaborate with federal agencies as part of that process; Gov. Butch Otter included the funding in his budget recommendation. It wouldn’t come from the state general fund, instead relying entirely on federal funds. The Department of Lands gets just 12 percent of its budget from the general fund.
Schultz said the position isn’t about takeover of lands; it’s about collaboration. “We’re working with the Forest Service, asking them, ‘How could the state be helpful?’” he said after his budget presentation. “This position would be facilitating some of that work, coordinating for the state.” The idea is that a collaborative group, including industry, tribes, and others, would work toward collaborative management on federal lands in Idaho. “We’ve heard rumors that industry might put some money in the pot,” Schultz said. The new position would have other duties as well.
Overall, Otter is recommending a 10.6 percent increase in general funds for the department, for a total budget that would increase 7.1 percent overall. Among the increases are $645,000 from dedicated funds for staff and consultants to implement recommendations of the Callan Associates asset allocation plan; $250,000 for sage grouse habitat improvements on endowment land; the first phase of a new Land Information Management System, at $100,000 in general funds and $900,000 in dedicated funds; and the third and final phase of the department’s Forest Information System, at $254,200 in general funds and $565,200 in dedicated funds. All are recommended by the governor. Not recommended: A $500,000 request to build a Centerville Guard Station for firefighters; currently, the department rents space in a local community center. The project originally was approved for construction in 2001, but budget cuts halted it. Schultz told JFAC, “You won’t see this again.” He said, “We just can’t get the funding and the support to get it done.”
Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, asked why the endowment doesn’t pay for firefighting costs on endowment lands. Schultz said the endowment pays a per-acre assessment, as do all land owners or agencies whose land is under state fire protection. But the suppression costs themselves traditionally have been treated as disaster-related expenses, and picked up by the general fund. Schultz said if that were changed, it would come out of the money that now goes to annual payouts to endowment beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state’s public schools. “It would just mean there would be less money available to use for those education funds,” Schultz said. “You would free up some general fund.”
In the past year, there were 351 fires on property under Lands Department fire protection; 183,000 acres burned, 7,400 of those on endowment-owned land. Fire suppression costs were $28.4 million; the general fund’s share is $24.5 million. Those costs are paid in arrears a year and a half later, so that bill will come to lawmakers next year.