Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Lawmakers: Feds should give up land

Senate passes federal lands transfer resolution

Express Staff Writer

Idaho wants its land back, lawmakers in the Idaho Senate said Tuesday before passing a resolution that asks Congress to transfer title for federally owned lands within Idaho’s borders to the state government. 

The resolution, known as House Concurrent Resolution 22, was passed by the Idaho House on March 21. It passed 55-13 in the House and 21-13 in the Senate.

District 26 Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, voted no, while Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, voted yes. Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, voted no.

The resolution has no legal effect. Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, argued Tuesday that he believes the federal government would simply ignore it.

“It’s about as useful as the empty pop can that I throw in the recycle bin,” he said, adding that it’s the responsibility of the Idaho congressional delegation to take up issues such as this one with Congress.

Supporters in the state Senate on Tuesday cited breaches of promises and mismanagement of lands by the federal government. The resolution would apply to about 16 million acres of public lands managed by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service. Wilderness lands, national defense areas and the Idaho National Laboratory would not be included in the transfer.

Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, said in introducing the bill that the United States had promised Idaho at the time of statehood that the federal government would sell any land it held and would give 5 percent of the proceeds to the state. The resolution states that Idaho ceded its unappropriated lands to the federal government with that understanding—which, Siddoway said, has now been breached.

He said that in addition, the federal government has been mismanaging public lands. Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, argued during debate over the resolution that she believes that mismanagement by the federal government had led to larger, more damaging wildfires.

Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, further argued that forests have been wasted under federal management, left to be “eaten by bugs”—a reference to the mountain pine beetles that are killing trees on Idaho’s national forests. He argued that this mismanagement has left lands vulnerable to large wildfires, which he said damage homes, property and the lungs of Idaho residents.

Hagedorn argued that allowing the state to control these lands and increase timber production would reduce wildfire and timber waste while boosting the state’s economy.

“If we were to get some of those acres of timber … and utilize that biomass that is going to waste, we could generate jobs and electricity that we could then sell out of state,” he said. “There are some good reasons why we should do this, and putting people back to work is a great reason.”

Other senators argued that the bill was “premature,” and should be held until a study group to investigate the issue had convened, following a measure approved earlier Tuesday by the Senate. 

Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, said it was “entirely appropriate” to study the issue, and said he was nervous about taking action before fully understanding it.

“I feel I need more information before we demand the federal government transfer titles [to the state],” he said.

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said the Idaho Attorney General’s Office found in 1980 that such a move was against the Idaho Constitution, and that she felt statewide collaborative efforts between the federal government and environmentalists would be more effective.

“Collaboratives have led to real, on-the-ground success,” she said, citing efforts on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests that have led to increased timber production and job creation. “A legal debate over the course of the last 30-plus years has never led to a single tree being cut, or a job created. Probably only the lawyers are making money.”

Stennett also said she was concerned about the possible cost to the state of enforcing laws and prosecuting criminals on nearly 16 million acres of newly state-managed land, and both she and Durst expressed concern that much of that land would be sold to private entities, reducing opportunities for public recreation.

“Senators, the only reason you want title to a land is to sell it,” Stennett said. “And I don’t think Idaho should be for sale.” 

Kate Wutz:

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