Idaho poised to debate public-land transfer
Utah's 2012 law spurs region to reconsider sales, ownership
BOISE (AP) — Chris Haunold shakes his head as he watches the Legislature push for a bill demanding that the U.S. government transfer ownership of the land it controls to the state.
The owner of Idaho Mountain Touring in Boise is a member of the Idaho Outdoor Business Council. He said "it's crazy" hearing lawmakers talk about how they think the state will manage the land better.
"They don't see the big picture," Haunold said.
The big picture, from his standpoint, is not that logging and grazing are bad, but that Idaho's recreation industry, now a potent economic force, is tied directly to the state's bounty of public lands.
"There's not a lot of places outside of Alaska that have this much open space," Haunold said. "Once it's gone, it's gone forever."
Supporters of House Concurrent Resolution 22 say they don't intend to sell off the federal land, but to manage it more efficiently. A hearing is scheduled at the Capitol for this morning before the House State Affairs Committee.
The resolution's premise is that the federal government broke its promise to the states to dispose of all its lands and give the states 5 percent of the revenue.
Most legal scholars agree that the federal government had the right to change its mind, but there is a minority view that the states' claim may be held as constitutional. That view passed the Utah Legislature last year, catching the interest of lawmakers in Arizona, Wyoming and New Mexico.
Idaho's bill, patterned after Utah's law, follows the federal disposal idea, meaning the state would keep 5 percent of the proceeds for any of the land it sells and turn 95 percent over to the U.S. government.
"The federal government never gave us the lands we were entitled to," said Iona Republican Rep. Tom Loertscher, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee.
The bill says that since the federal government breached its promise, it should transfer land to the state. Once done, the state would give back the national parks, designated wilderness areas, defense lands, national monuments and the Idaho National Laboratory — as long as more promises are not broken.
Tribes would get to keep their lands, and the state promises to honor all treaty rights. But the resolution makes no reference to the lands the tribes ceded to the federal government on which they reserved their treaty rights, which is much of the federal land the state is demanding.
The state is not proposing to give back the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area or the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Nor is it proposing to transfer back to the feds the roadless national forest lands, wilderness study areas, the Boise Foothills or the Morley Nelson Birds of Prey area.
The resolution would establish an Interim Public Lands Study Committee to look at how to manage access, open space, sustained yields — of what is not identified — and multiple use of lands. It also would determine through a public process whether any of the land — and if so, how much — could be sold.
Haunold, whose business sells skis, bikes and other outdoor equipment, said nothing in the discussion addresses his industry, whose $6.3 billion in consumer spending generates 77,000 jobs annually, according to a new report by the national Outdoor Industry Association.
According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the U.S. Forest Service, more than 7 million people visit Idaho's 20 million acres of national forests annually, spending more than $400 million.
A 2011 Interior Department report concluded that recreation accounts for six times more jobs than grazing or timber, and three times more than energy and minerals on the 12 million acres in Idaho managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Even though much of the visitation hits rural communities, much of the spending is done in Idaho's urban areas, so the rural lawmakers backing the bill don't necessarily see the economic benefits of recreation in their districts. What they do see are reduced timber harvests and restrictions on grazing.
That's why Haunold is skeptical when lawmakers say they won't sell off the land if they can win a lawsuit upholding their plan and force Congress to turn it over, which Haunold thinks is a distinct long shot.
"As soon as they get their hands on it, they are going to sell off what they think is not valuable," he said. "They're going to fail, but along the way they will waste my taxpayer dollars."
Haunold thinks Idahoans from both parties are with him on keeping the public lands in federal hands.
In 2006, the last time the Idaho League of Conservation Voters polled Republican primary voters, 66 percent said they were more likely to support a candidate who was opposed to selling national forest land, said John Reuter, the league's executive director.
"It's bad policy, and it's bad politics," Reuter said. "Idaho Republicans, independents and Democrats agree that we should preserve Idaho public lands."
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, acknowledges the strong support for keeping the land under federal control. But he wants to change the conversation. People will change their minds, he said, if the state can show that it will create millions of dollars in new revenue for schools, roads, and health and welfare by efficiently managing the land — like it has done with state lands.
The resolution doesn't authorize the state to go to court, he said.
Bedke said he hopes people like Haunold will get involved in the interim committee's deliberations over the summer.
"I hope all stakeholders come to testify and make their points," Bedke said. "That's how we can all learn together."
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