Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador is looking past the November election with a bill that would give states opportunities to show they do a better job managing national forest lands.
Labrador knows his bill, which would establish pilot projects to turn over about 1 percent of Idaho’s 20 million acres of national forests to the state to manage, is not going to fly now. Not with a Democratic Senate — which has blocked similar plans in the past — and with a Democrat in the White House.
But Labrador is laying the groundwork with the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act for a time when the GOP controls the Senate.
Campaigning in Idaho in February, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney expressed support for state management of federal lands. Romney’s proposal, which he said came after talking to Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, was offered as an alternative to Rick Santorum’s call to transfer ownership.
“It just gives every state the opportunity to manage their lands with local control, which is what we want,” Labrador said.
The plan has been a nonstarter for environmental groups, even those working in collaboration with Idaho counties and the timber industry. The groups want to keep federal lands managed by federal agencies.
States “would have a different mandate than managing our forests for the benefit of the American people,” said Brad Brooks, Wilderness Society deputy regional director.
IDAHO COUNTIES LOOKING FOR HELP
Labrador’s proposal comes out of a proposal by five rural Idaho counties struggling with some of the highest unemployment in the state. They are desperate because they stand to lose $31 million in federal assistance that has helped keep them afloat following the decline of their timber economies.
That money has come from the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act — better known as Craig-Wyden, after the two Northwest senators who championed it. The act replaces revenues from drastically dwindled timber sale receipts that once buoyed counties and school districts with large tracts of federal timberlands and little private land to generate property taxes.
JOBS, RURAL ECONOMIES
Deep federal budget cuts threaten the future of the Secure Rural Schools funds. The counties believe Labrador’s bill offers them a way to offset at least part of that lost funding. They hope it also would provide jobs and help to rebuild the timber industry and rural economies.
“I am excited to try something besides standing around with our hand out for a federal check,” said Skip Brandt, an Idaho County commissioner who also worked on the proposal.
MAXIMIZING STATE REVENUE
The bill applies not just to Idaho. Any state could set up a forest trust board to manage 200,000 acres or more of national forests. Federal environmental laws would still be in effect, but only as if the lands were state lands.
That would reduce the requirements for states to consult on projects under the Endangered Species Act and to assess them under the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Planning and Management Act. State forestry departments, such as the Idaho Department of Lands, would manage the lands to maximize the long-term return for the counties after covering their costs.
One key savings to states: The Forest Service would still be responsible for fire protection — the biggest expense.
How much the pilot plan would return to the counties is part of the debate. The Idaho counties have predicted about $13 million annually, based on how much net income the state lands produce.
Since the counties came to the Idaho Land Board, the state has analyzed the 1 million acres adjacent to state lands from which the pilot lands might be chosen. Predicting with any precision the net income would be hard until specific forests and conditions are revealed, said David Groeschl, Idaho’s state forester.
He’d also need to know how many people he will have to hire to do the actual management. Timber markets have been soft since 2008, he said. His estimate ranges from $7 million to $12 million, depending on the market.
Labrador sees more than just timber receipts benefiting the communities. He predicted jobs in timber mills, logging and other services.
But Chris Mehl of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont., said productivity gains in modern mills have reduced industry jobs.
Headwaters’ analysis suggests far less would be generated, especially with the current depressed timber markets.
“Even if the bill worked, the scale of created jobs will be small,” Mehl said. “The jobs will pay well because workers will have to be able to operate a variety of highly complicated equipment, but will be few in number compared to 30 years ago.”
He and environmentalists support more logging but seek more balanced development and federal land policy that also promotes fish and wildlife habitat restoration. Labrador’s bill promotes industrial forestry like states do on their land, Mehl said.
“What would be gained, or lost, in favoring the one industry over others and the repeal of the environmental safeguard laws?” Mehl asked.
Forest Service officials have cooperated with Labrador, but privately many in the agency resent the idea that somehow states can do better.
Groeschl said his Forest Service counterparts feel hamstrung by the very laws this bill would shield the states from.
“If you gave them the opportunity to manage those lands professionally, they could do a fine job,” he said.
Environmental groups also don’t like the makeup of the proposed trust board that would control the pilot project lands. It would have four members: a county commissioner, a timber industry representative, a rancher or miner and a recreation representative.
“There would be no incentive to collaborate with any conservation interest,” the Wilderness Society’s Brooks said.
But Gordon Cruickshank, a Valley County commissioner who helped develop the proposal, has been working with conservation groups to improve the health of the forests and the economy of their communities.
Labrador’s bill is designed to begin a national discussion that doesn’t have to focus on timber harvest, he said.
“It’s not about trees,” Cruickshank said. “It’s about opportunity.”
Rocky Barker: 377-6484