Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and Boise are looking at changing a federal management system that all but ended logging after the forest wars of the 1980s and 1990s.
The desire for new forest plans is driven by wildfires that are growing in intensity and cost, and by lawsuits that lead foresters to add time and pages to environmental reviews to avoid litigation.
In Idaho, the Legislature is studying whether to copy a Utah law that would try to force the federal government to turn over millions of acres of public lands.
In Washington, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation is looking at programs to mirror the forest trusts in 22 states - such as Idaho's state endowments that produce revenue for schools and other beneficiaries - on 135 million acres.
Freed of laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Idaho brings in 917 times the revenue per acre that the federal government takes in on the state's national forests, Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said Tuesday.
"I believe our forests and public lands are long overdue for a paradigm shift," Bishop said.
TESTING THE WATERS
Idaho House Resources and Conservation Committee Chairman Lawerence Denney said Tuesday that he expects the Legislature to pass a resolution this year in support of the Utah legislation, which also is generating interest in Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming.
But state legislation that would authorize a legal demand that the federal government give up some of its 34.5 million acres of public land in Idaho will go to an interim committee for study between now and the 2014 legislative session, Denney said.
In Washington, D.C., Idaho Gov. Butch Otter pushed the House subcommittee to establish a forest trust pilot project recommended in 1998 by the Idaho Federal Lands Task Force. More than 2 million acres of the state's 20 million acres of national forests would be managed by a trust board to increase revenues and improve management.
Otter told the subcommittee Tuesday that turning the lands over to such a board would make the forests healthier and that more aggressive management would reduce the size and intensity of forest fires. He pointed to the 1.7 million acres of Idaho forests and rangeland that burned last year, costing the state and federal government $214 million.
"It appears to folks in Idaho the federal government would rather see a valuable resource go up in smoke than be harvested and create some much-needed jobs for rural communities," Otter testified.
Another proposal from the '98 Federal Lands Task Force was a collaborative model that kept land under federal management but gave the many interest groups involved in the forests more say.
Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Silas Whitman said the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, led by Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, is built on that model and already is boosting timber harvests, restoring damaged watersheds, creating jobs and identifying areas that should be protected as wilderness.
U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who introduced Otter and Whitman at Tuesday's hearing, has offered a bill similar to the governor's proposal. His Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act would create pilot projects to turn over about 1 percent of Idaho's national forests to the state to manage.
Labrador said he also is a supporter of Crapo's Clearwater Basin Collaborative, which has brought together timber executives, local officials, preservationists, conservationists, sportsmen, the Nez Perce and representatives of motor-powered recreation.
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
The Forest Service has sold contracts to harvest 11.4 million board feet of timber as a result of the Clearwater operation, said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League. The Clearwater-Nez Perce Forest also has increased its annual timber target from 40 million to 60 million board feet - enough to build 600,000 homes.
"If we really wanted to focus on the outcomes, that's exactly what we're doing on collaborative programs around the state," Oppenheimer said.
"We would love to see the Legislature become more involved in efforts around the state that are delivering logs to the mill, creating jobs, restoring watersheds and protecting the special places Idahoans love."
Whitman said he shares Otter's frustration with bureaucracy. But he said the trust proposal would threaten the Nez Perce's treaty rights and relationship with the federal government.
Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, served on the state task force in the late 1990s and said the state has had success with its trusts for public schools.
"We've had an ongoing pilot project for 120 years, and by any biological measure state lands are on par or better than federal lands," Bedke said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484