BOISE – A U.S. House proposal to sell millions of acres of federal land in the West has become one of the first battlegrounds for two candidates vying to be Idaho’s next governor.
The bill, designed to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina and future disasters, would instigate debate over what federal land should remain in public hands and what should be privatized.
U.S. Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter, R-Idaho and so far the lone GOP gubernatorial candidate for the post being vacated by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, is one of the measure’s 13 sponsors. The bill would set aside up to 15 percent of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land in Idaho and other Western states, and put it up for sale by next Oct. 1.
In addition to helping rebuild storm-ravaged Gulf Coast communities, Otter says the proposal would increase tax revenue for services in isolated, rural counties by turning federal land into private property.
Jerry Brady, the former eastern Idaho newspaper publisher who’s the only Democratic candidate to announce, says converting public land into private property would limit access by hunters and other sporting groups.
“It’s very important to have rural development, but the problem here is this is a wholesale, meat-ax approach that Otter is taking,” Brady told the Associated Press following a Monday press conference in Boise. “It’s simply a forced sale of 15 percent of our state.”
Idaho has approximately 12 million acres of BLM lands and 22 million acres of Forest Service lands. Together, they account for about two-thirds of the state.
The bill has been in a U.S. House subcommittee since September and won’t be voted on until next year at the earliest.
According to its text, sale proceeds would go into a special account to defray costs of responding to natural disasters such as the August and September Gulf Coast hurricanes, or even a terrorist attack.
Once the land is privatized, revenue from taxes would help cash-strapped counties whose territory is now mostly made up of federally controlled forest or rangeland, Otter said.
For instance, Custer County officials in isolated central Idaho lament that 96 percent of their total 1,000 square miles are in federal hands.
They say federal payments meant to make up for the dearth of private-property tax revenues are too paltry to fund services such as search-and-rescue teams or schools.
“The federal government has a responsibility to pay its fair share,” Otter said in a statement backing the sale plan.
Brady, an Idaho Falls resident who lost the 2002 governor’s race to Kempthorne, said he believes this issue is important enough to make the difference in the Nov. 7, 2006, general election.
Otter, meanwhile, accused Brady and other bill opponents of hypocrisy. The same people who are fighting the measure backed the sale of federal land in the Boise Foothills to the city of Boise, he said.
“Are such transfers only valid when they are proposed by self-appointed conservationists, and not by those who espouse the broader concept of multiple-use stewardship?” asked Otter, who owns a 70-acre ranch in Star, a Boise suburb.
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