Friday, June 22, 2007

Rein in Otter?s free hand on land sales, spending

Years of drought and periodic alarms about water rationing in the western United States have been of major concern to anyone dependent on water. Agriculture above all others knows the risks and danger of borrowing money to finance another year of crops.

Now, because the Idaho Department of Water Resources and heavy water users could not resolve a dispute over allocations to trout farms that hold senior water rights, agricultural interests face water cutoffs and potentially heavy losses.

Waiting to ride to the rescue is Gov. Butch Otter and a discretionary $15 million slush fund that he hints might be used to bail out farmers and related businesses.

Why should farmers who knew the risks be rescued with state funds?

Idaho government showed no such compassion in the late 1970s when the Wood River Valley literally was broken by a snowless winter that left the ski industry and resort businesses crippled. Absent state handouts, their only hope was to take out Small Business Administration loans and hope for a better winter the next year.

In addition to questioning the governor's lack of justification for farmer bailouts, his proposed sales of Fish & Game Department land to create a $50 million "Land Legacy Trust" should be greeted with a jaundiced eye.

Gov. Otter has made high-minded statements about using the fund to buy conservation easements to protect farms, ranches, timberlands and wildlife habitat. Be that as it may, hunters and fishermen, whose license funds bought or maintained the F&G lands, and state legislators, who gave Otter the land acquisition authority, deserve more control and more assurances than Otter's colorful statements.

The Idaho Conservation League sounded the proper caution. "I want to make sure the public is included in the process," said ICL's John Robison.

Indeed. Since Otter's plan for land sell-offs won't be finalized until about the time the 2008 Legislature convenes, lawmakers should rein in his free hand and demand a say-so in any sale to ensure the public interest is secured and protected.

Public land sales can always become the source of hank-panky. Commercial interests with backdoor access to public officials, for example, can arrange for uses of the land beneficial to them without public knowledge.

Even if F&G land is sold to U.S. agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, the public could still lose: a president by executive order could open land to petroleum exploration, mining or logging without regard to environmental damage.

The public's interest in its lands and money requires better control over the state's frisky show horse Gov. Otter.

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