Blaine and Custer county commissioners fear the Bush administration's proposal to sell more than 300,000 acres of national forest land may prove detrimental to passage of the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, proposed legislation that would designate three key areas of the Boulder-White Cloud mountains as wilderness areas.
Both counties are slated to receive chunks of federal land if CIEDRA passes. Blaine County would receive 425 acres for public purposes. Custer County would acquire between 2,000 and 6,000 acres, mostly for development purposes.
Last week, Blaine County commissioners sent a letter to Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who crafted the CIEDRA bill, notifying him of their concerns.
"With recent controversy whirling about the transfer of public lands to private or public entities, we would like to clarify Blaine County's position on the CIEDRA bill," the letter states. "We have no desire to let our land transfer requests become fodder for the delay of new wilderness in Idaho."
The commissioners on Feb. 15 unanimously passed a resolution stating that "support for Representative Mike Simpson's bill is not contingent upon the transferring of public lands to the county for public purposes."
Custer County Commissioner Lin Hintze, of Mackay, believes that the negativity swirling around the president's proposal will cast a shadow over CIEDRA's congressional hearing—which has yet to be scheduled—and would provide ammunition for the bill's opponents.
"I don't want (the land sales) to get tied into the CIEDRA bill. It's probably going to fail just because of all this land sale stuff," said Hintze, although he's in favor of economic provisions in Simpson's compromise bill that may benefit Custer County.
One of the most controversial components of CIEDRA includes the proposal to grant Custer County between 2,000 and 6,000 acres of federal land for private property development. Some conservationists and CIEDRA opponents have blasted that aspect of the bill, while Hintze claims it's vital to the survival of his rural county, which is composed of 96 percent federal land.
The president's proposal, which would include the sale of more than 26,000 acres of public land in Idaho, would generate an estimated $1 billion. About 80 percent of that money would be used to continue funding the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act over the next five years. Created in 2000 and sponsored by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the act was designed to benefit counties that have lost money since logging on federal land was slashed.
"This really freaks me out," Hintze said. "When the Pombo thing got mixed up in (CIEDRA), it caused us a whole lot of grief."
Hintze is referring to a 2005 proposal by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., that would have permitted the sale of public land to mining companies for $1,000 an acre. Locally, the bill would have allowed land occupied by the Three Rivers quarry, located in Custer County near the city of Clayton, to be sold to the quarry's operator, L&W Stone, of California.
In December 2005, lawmakers killed Pombo's plan. That's when Simpson indicated he might lump the sale of the quarry into CIEDRA. But less than a month later, Simpson announced he would not pursue such an action.
"As I have said many times during the CIEDRA legislative process, CIEDRA is a finely tuned bill that is based on many compromises and considerations," Simpson said in a prepared statement in January. "The constructive feedback I have received over the past three weeks has made it apparent to me that including the quarry would tip the balance for many of those who have been working towards the overall goals of CIEDRA."
Ironically, Hintze initially supported Pombo's proposal, indicated by an October letter to the California representative.
"The employment and revenue created by (L&W Stone) are beneficial to maintaining a stable economic base for Custer County," Hintze wrote to Pombo. "We hope this land purchase will be made final."
Hintze said he dropped support for Pombo's plan when it became clear it was having a negative impact on CIEDRA. He was concerned that CIEDRA opponents were using the concept as a tool to deter support for the bill.
CIEDRA's land giveaways are just one concession to Custer County. Corridors for motorized vehicles would also bisect portions of the bill's centerpiece—300,011 acres of designated wilderness in the Boulder and White Clouds mountains—to attract the growing community of off-highway-vehicle users.
Hintze doesn't want to jeopardize the land giveaways, which he believes are central to Custer County's economic survival.
In addition, Custer County would not benefit further from the president's proposed land sales, receiving $191,685 a year, which according to Hintze is about status quo. Neither would Blaine County, which would continue to receive about $100,000 a year, with 80 percent going towards roads and schools, and 20 percent to general projects, according to Blaine County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael.
The president's proposal has conservationists and public-land-access advocates shaking their heads. But at the same time, some feel the plan won't fly in Congress.
"While this proposal from the Bush administration certainly represents an enormous threat to Idaho traditions and values, my personal opinion is this thing is dead in the water," said Jonathan Oppenheimer, a conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League. "Even Larry Craig is opposed to this, or certainly not very happy about it, and even Wyden is not happy with it.
"It comes down to the fact that the Bush administration is looking everywhere in the federal budget to find extra money to dig us out of the deficit we're in—it represents a pretty serious disconnect between Washington, D.C., and the West."
Idaho Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, paints a bleaker picture. Five weeks ago Stennett introduced a bill—Senate Joint Memorial 116—to fight the sale of federal lands. It has yet to be given a hearing.
"Republican leadership in the Senate is trying to kill this bill without a hearing," Stennett wrote earlier this week. "I think it is crucial that this Legislature have the opportunity to vote on this issue.
"The public does not want to sell off our public lands, and the Legislature should be leading the way on this issue."