Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Committee discusses state takeover of federal lands

Some say plan would generate needed revenue

Express Staff Writer

    A co-chair of a legislative committee studying the pros and cons of the state taking control of federal land in Idaho has a simple message for the public and his colleagues: Be patient.
    Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, vowed that the Federal Lands Interim Committee will take its time to study all the angles, benefits and consequences of such a big idea. The first few meetings will be devoted to education before members turn their focus to a report and recommendation due to the Legislature in 2015.
    “These first few meetings will be more educational than anything else,’’ Winder said as part of his opening remarks at the panel’s first meeting Friday, Aug. 9.
    The committee is charged with following up on a resolution approved by lawmakers earlier this year demanding that the federal government cede most of the public land it oversees in Idaho to the state.
    A variety of federal agencies manage more than 53,000 square miles of forest, rangeland and in many cases roadless wilderness areas. That’s an area about the size of Arkansas.
    The U.S. Forest Service oversees the majority of that land, estimated at 32,000 square miles, followed by the BLM and a handful of other agencies.
    One motivation for a state takeover is generating additional revenue for the state. Officials with the Idaho Department of Lands told the panel Friday that the state could receive between $50 million and $75 million in revenue annually for public schools, universities and other institutions by allowing more timber harvest and other activities.
    During the daylong meeting, lawmakers heard competing versions of history and legal theory on the idea of federal transfer of public lands to states.
    Donald Kochan, a law professor at Chapman University in California, said critics of federal transfer are too quick to dismiss the government’s implied promise to dispose of all of its federal lands as part of compacts written when Western states were created.
    Kochan, an advocate of federal transfer of lands, said more study is needed to determine how the Idaho delegates at the time of statehood viewed the compact and any handover of federal acreage.
    But Idaho Assistant Attorney General Steve Strack said the delegates and state leaders at the time were clear on that question. Strack cited multiple references in which delegates referred to the more than 3 million acres of federal lands that were deeded into state trust lands for schools as “grants.’’
    Delegates also supported the establishment of forest reserves, which permanently placed the land under federal control. Judge William Claggett, the chief architect of the Idaho Constitution, also drafted the law that created Yellowstone National Park, Strack said.
    “I do not suppose for a moment that we would ever have control over the public lands of the United States,’’ said delegate Weldon Heyburn, of Wallace, at the time of statehood.
    The resolutions passed earlier this year had wide support among the Republican-dominated Legislature. But the idea also has critics, including Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, one of two Democrats on the committee.
    “Mostly I was on it to ask the hard questions,” Stennett said. “There’s so much more about what it takes to manage these lands. We at the state just don’t have the financial ability to do it at the level the federal government does.
    “I walked into this thinking it’s not a smart idea at all, and I haven’t moved off of that.”
    Stennett predicted that if the state does manage to take over federal lands—a move that she said would be an unconstitutional violation of federal preemption—it would soon be financially compelled to sell much of the acreage to private buyers.
    “We would lose access for the public,” she said. “I think that in the end, public discontent might decide this more than anything.”
    The committee is scheduled to meet twice again this year, in late October and in early December.

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