Friday, October 3, 2014

Input sought on federal land transfer

Public meeting scheduled in Hailey to discuss proposal

Express Staff Writer

The state Legislature is pursuing a plan to have the U.S. government cede ownership of about 28 million acres of federal land in Idaho. Express file photo

The Idaho Legislature will hold a public meeting in Hailey on Friday, Oct. 10, to take testimony about its demand that the federal government cede ownership of most of its land in Idaho to the state.

     The demand was contained in a resolution passed during the 2013 session. The resolution states that upon transfer of all federal land, the state would return national park land, national monuments, wilderness areas and Defense and Energy department land back to federal ownership. The result would be a transfer of 28 million acres, 83 percent of all the federal land in the state.

     The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Wood River High School Performing Arts Theater. Public meetings on the issue were held in northern Idaho in mid-September, and others will take place in Idaho Falls and Soda Springs on Oct. 9 and in Twin Falls on Oct. 10.

     The meetings are being hosted by the Legislature’s 11-member Federal Lands Interim Committee, which was formed to analyze the issue.

     Committee member Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, has expressed opposition to the demand.

     “It’s not constitutional and I don’t think the state can afford to manage the lands,” she said. “So we’d sell it to the highest bidder and we’d lose access.”

     District 26 Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, also voted against the resolution. District 26 Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, voted in favor.

     “Idaho is a whole lot better land manager than the federal government is,” Miller said.

     He said the state is more willing to harvest timber, and less constrained by federal environmental laws from doing so. He said additional timber harvest would result in fewer large wildfires.

     He said there had been no talk among supporters of the resolution about ever selling public land that the state may acquire.

     Miller said his economic conclusions were based largely on a February 2013 letter from Idaho Department of Lands Director Tom Schultz to the chairs of the House and Senate committees considering the matter. Acknowledging that his figures were only a rough analysis, Schultz said the state could generate a profit of $51 million to $75 million annually through additional timber revenue if it acquired 16.4 million acres of federal land. That acreage figure, presented before the resolution was adopted, was based on Utah legislation that excluded all roadless areas in the proposed transfer.

     Regarding fire suppression, Schultz said the Department of Lands protects 6 million acres at a cost of $15 million annually. If the state had to provide fire protection on an additional 16.4 million acres, it would have to spend about $45 million more per year.

     A study commissioned by the Idaho Conservation League, and carried out in December 2013 by the Boise-based Conservation Economics Institute, came to a very different conclusion. It said transfer of 28 million acres of federal lands would result in a net loss to the state of $240 million after the first year, dropping gradually to $144 million per year after 20 years.

     “With even a cursory look at the economics, it is clear that this resolution is bad business for Idaho communities and residents,” the study states.

     The study questioned the Idaho Department of Lands methodology in estimating fire suppression costs by extrapolating current costs for protecting its land. The Conservation Economics Institute contends that the 6 million acres for which the Department of Lands has fire-suppression responsibility are typically wetter, have more roads and access, and have less topographical variation than Idaho’s federal lands.

     “A simple extrapolation of fire management costs on lands managed by the department to federal lands in Idaho results in a poor estimate of overall costs,” the study states.

     Instead, the study assumed a continuation of fire-suppression costs similar to those borne by the federal government, which spent an average of $161 million annually over the past 10 years on fire suppression in Idaho. Assuming a transfer of 83 percent of federal land in the state, the study concluded that annual wildfire suppression costs would be about $134 million. Wildfire preparedness activities would result in another $54 million.

     The study also estimated $22 million in annual costs to continue to manage recreation, roads and other facilities on the land acquired by the state. It pointed out that the state and counties would lose $54 million a year in federal land payments and lose about 2,500 federal jobs, which would translate into an initial loss of almost $170 million of annual wages in Idaho.

     “These federal wages are very important to the state, as they are injections of outside money into the Idaho economy,” the study said. “But these jobs are even more important to rural communities in Idaho that have fewer economic opportunities.”

     Both studies estimated that additional timber harvest could bring in about $100 million in net revenue, not including fire suppression costs, after about a decade.

     A poll released Sept. 25 by the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank, indicated that 52 percent of Idaho voters oppose a transfer of federal lands to the state, while only 44 percent support it. Average support over eight Western states was also 52 percent. Utah was the only state in which a majority (52 percent) supported the idea. In Wyoming, 48 percent were in favor and 46 percent were opposed.

     Miller said he thinks the likelihood of Idaho’s obtaining ownership of federal lands in the near future is very small. He said a more realistic approach would be for the state to seek more authority over managing those lands.

     “I do feel that sooner or later, there will be opportunities to talk about management, simply because the federal government spends money on managing them,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight, but with time there will be opportunities to generate revenue.”

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