For some, public land in the west is a place to camp and recreate. For all of us, these lands are a source of water and the air we breath. That’s especially true in Idaho - where more than half of the land is federally owned and managed. Now, some states like Idaho and Oregon want to take over the management of these federal lands.
Utah and Arizona lawmakers passed bills last year that require the federal government to hand over public land to the state. Now Idaho is giving this some serious thought. The man who led the charge in Utah is Rep. Ken Ivory. Idaho lawmakers asked him in January to explain how that state took up this debate.
“What does the federal government do effectively? The post office is broke, the budget has $16 trillion in debt and $85 trillion in unfunded obligations. The federal government was never intended to be micro-managing land access and land use," Ivory says.
More than 60 percent of Idaho is federally managed public land. Ivory asked state lawmakers to imagine what Idaho could do with that revenue that could be made from cutting timber on newly ceded state lands. The result, he told them, would be less wildfires and more money for state interests.
"Why is it we would rather beg borrow and burn our resources than effectively manage them to educate children and provide for our economic self reliance?” he asks.
One example Ivory says is the difference between state managed land and federal land in North Idaho.
"You know you look at Priest Lake - you’ve got the state managed side and the federal managed side. On the state managed side, fires are 9 acres," Ivory says. "On the federal managed side - fires are thousands of acres.”
Ivory says its time that western states demand the federal government to give all that public land to the states to manage. In Utah, that doesn’t apply to national parks, monuments and wilderness areas. In Oregon, state lawmakers there are now considering a resolution that calls on Congress to transfer 2.7 million acres of public land to the state.
In Idaho, lawmakers like Scott Bedke, a rancher from Oakley says transferring public lands to state control is worth talking about. He doesn’t see this as a land grab. He believes the federal government should still manage wilderness areas, monuments and recreation areas. But Bedke says its possible for the state to manage national forests like it does endowment lands.
“The way we manage forest on the Idaho trust lands and took that same management model and overlayed on the other side of priest lake for example that is federally managed," he says. " Could we not expect similar results? Improved forest health, reduced fire and at the same time creating jobs and infrastructure and light industry in Idaho?”
Lawmakers this year resolved to create a study group to look into how Idaho could best manage public land. They also demanded the federal government turn over public land to the state.
Bedke says the state could hypothetically allot land - say 200,000 acres - to financially benefit education. Another 200,000 could then be used to benefit health and welfare. It would work similar to the federal endowment land the state already manages.
“I can see the state being able to provide those exact same amenities with our land management model as the federal land management model has and at the same time have a monetary return to those hypothetical beneficiaries," Bedke says.
Not everyone agrees. Jonathan Oppenheimer with the Idaho Conservation League says under state management, it could be harder to access public lands.
"If these lands were turned over to that we would see these lands sold off to the highest bidder and we would see access restricted and we would see the impacts with that with reduced environmental quality,” Oppenheimer says.
In recent years, the state of Idaho has worked with the federal government, conservation groups and the public to develop management efforts. For example, the state worked with stakeholders including the federal government to create a plan to manage federal roadless areas. Oppenheimer says a land transfer undermines what he sees as successful and promising efforts.
“We would see less public involvement, less opportunity for public engagement in the process and that is what we see as going the wrong way," says Oppenheimer.
Rep. Bedke says it’s not likely the federal government would transfer the land over to the state. He says the people of Idaho have come to expect certain amenities from public land. But he believes the federal government struggles to provide those services and the state may be able to manage the land better in the future.
Boise State Public Radio hosts a public forum on the future of Idaho’s public lands tonight starting at 6 p.m. You can find more information here. (Note: The event is sold out.)
Correction: We incorrectly stated that the state manages roadless areas in Idaho. That is not correct. The U.S. Forest Service manages the 9.3 million acres of roadless areas in Idaho.
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