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Environment | Land

Idaho Joins The Public Lands Tug Of War

Fire burned a significant section of public land north of Featherville in central Idaho. State lawmakers believe fire risk could be better managed if the state managed these lands instead of the federal government.

Fire burned a significant section of public land north of Featherville in central Idaho. State lawmakers believe fire risk could be better managed if the state managed these lands instead of the federal government.

Aaron Kunz

BOISE, Idaho — Vast tracts of public land in the West create opportunities to hunt, hike and to work in extractive industries like logging and mining.

They also create frustration for those who want those lands controlled by their own states, rather than the federal government.

That’s especially true in Idaho, where more than 60 percent of the land mass is federally owned and managed.

The Utah Legislature passed legislation last year calling on the federal government to hand over 20 million acres of public land to the state. Arizona lawmakers followed a similar path, referring to voters a measure that would have amended the state’s constitution to invoke state sovereignty and jurisdiction over public lands and other natural resources. Voters rejected it by a 2-to-1 ratio.

One of the forces behind this sagebrush rebellion, Utah state representative Ken Ivory, made a trip to Boise this year to encourage Idaho lawmakers to join the cause.

“What does the federal government do effectively?” Ivory rhetorically asked during one of his statehouse appearances in Boise in January. “The Post Office is broke, The budget has $16 trillion in unfunded obligations. The federal government was never intended to be micro-managing land access and land use.”

Community Conversation

EarthFix Partner Boise State Public Radio (KBSX) is hosting a community conversation on public lands.

The event, set for Wednesday at 6 p.m., is sold out. But you can still be involved:

  • Follow a livestream at the Boise State Public Radio website.
  • Help spread the word and follow the conversation on Twitter with #idlands
  • Email questions in advance to

Ivory asked his counterparts in the Idaho Legislature to imagine what their state could do with timber-harvest tax receipts collected when trees are logged in wildfire-prone forests.

“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?” Ivory asked as he made his case for western states to demand that the federal government hand over its public lands.

It’s a message that found a receptive audience in the Republican-controlled Idaho Legislature. By the time the Idaho Legislature adjourned last week, it had approved two measures aimed at shifting control of public lands away from the federal government and into the hands of Idaho policy-makers. One creates a study group to look into how Idaho could best manage public land and the legal way to make this happen. The other is a non-binding resolution demanding the federal government turn over public land to the state.

This tension over who should control and reap the revenues from public land isn’t limited to red states like Utah, Arizona and Idaho. The Democratically controlled Oregon state Senate is considering non-binding legislation that calls on Congress to transfer 2.7 million acres of federal land into a trust to be managed by a state board.

US Federal Land
American Lands Council

The Oregon legislation is being pushed as a way to maintain public services in 18 counties where timber harvests —- and local revenues they produced —- have fallen by 90 percent over two decades of federal land management.

In Idaho, Rep. Scott Bedke favors a gradual transition of land management responsibilities from federal agencies to the Idaho government — an approach that would let the state gradually build its capacity to handle the responsibilities now held by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

He suggested dedicating revenue from timber sales and mineral leases on specific land parcels to specific budget areas — for example, one tract could produce revenue for education. Another would put money into the health and welfare budget.

“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,” Bedke said, “and at the same time have a monetary return to those hypothetical beneficiaries.”

Not everyone agrees with lawmakers who passed the two non-binding resolutions. Jonathan Oppenheimer with the Idaho Conservation League says this takeover approach would undermine successful efforts to find collaborative approaches to public-lands conflict in the state.

If the state were to take over management, Oppenheimer said, access to public lands in Idaho could be more restricted, and stewardship for future generations could be compromised.

“We don’t want to see these lands privatized, we don’t want to see ‘no-trespassing’ signs pop up and that’s one of the big concerns we see,” Oppenheimer said. “We would see these lands sold off to the highest bidder … we would see access restricted and we would see the impacts with that with reduced environmental quality.”

Watch Ken Ivory’s full presentation to the Idaho Legislature - January 2013.