Long before he got into politics, Paul Shepherd was interested in public lands.
The five-term representative from Riggins grew up enjoying the outdoors. His family hunted and fished, and his father ran a sawmill. He bought his own small mill near Stanley when he was 23.
"That was my American dream," Shepherd says. "My wife and I talked about having our own business when we were still dating. I'd come out the door in the morning to fire up the mill and look out across the valley to the Sawtooth Range. I couldn't believe I was so blessed."
Initially the mill handled logs harvested from national forests. It has since relocated and now relies primarily on private timber.
That's partly because federal timber harvests in Idaho have dropped precipitously, from an average of about 800 million board feet per year in the 1980s to fewer than 200 million today.
"When I was on the School Board (in Riggins and Garden Valley), I saw how much money schools lost when we started letting the forests burn," Shepherd says. "We've lost jobs and had mills shut down. That's why I got involved in politics, because I saw what was happening with the forests."
Reduced harvests, increased risk of catastrophic wildfires and "oppressive" federal policies are among the reasons why Shepherd and other lawmakers are pushing for state ownership of public lands.
They introduced legislation, approved March 21 by the House, calling on Congress to turn over title to about half the federal lands in Idaho, including national forests, roadless areas and grazing lands.
Similar demands have been made in the past. Absent a court challenge, it's unlikely they'll prevail today.
Given the current budget challenges, though, Congress may be willing to consider a transfer of management authority.
"Allowing states to manage federal lands would be more likely to get a positive hearing in Congress, as opposed to the outright transfer of ownership," says Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
That's essentially what Gov. Butch Otter proposed in February, when testifying before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Public Lands. He lobbied for a demonstration project to show how a trust lands management model might work on national forests.
"It would be inappropriate to suggest an abrupt move to a different management system without first testing it on a smaller scale," he says. "A pilot project could demonstrate in direct fashion how an alternative approach would be applied on the ground."
HEYDAY SPAWNED ENVIRONMENTAL BACKLASH
Whether it involves a transfer of ownership or just a change in management authority, any revision of the status of public lands raises a number of concerns.
"Would these lands be managed the same as state endowment lands, or would this create some new status of lands that could take into consideration multiple values?" asked Jonathan Oppenheimer, a senior conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League.
Under the endowment approach, he says, the state would manage lands primarily for revenue generation.
A recent analysis by the Idaho Department of Lands, for example, suggested the state could earn $51 million to $75 million per year if it took over management of 6.9 million acres of national forest. But that assumed timber sales would return to historic levels of 800 million to 1 billion board feet a year.
That kind of "nuclear forestry" no longer reflects what people want in forest management, Oppenheimer says. In fact, the heyday of logging helped spawn the national backlash that led to the environmental restrictions so many lawmakers now oppose.
Unsustainable clear-cuts in the Bitterroot National Forest in the late 1960s, for example, spurred passage of the National Forest Management Act, which regulates harvest practices and requires long-range planning.
The get-out-the-cut mentality "was seen as a too-narrowly focused management approach of our public lands," Oppenheimer says. "That's not what people want. They want to see a more moderate approach that takes into consideration clean water, endangered species, public input and a whole variety of issues."
Department of Lands Director Tom Schultz says this question of how public lands would be managed is critical to determining whether Idaho could really handle them more efficiently - or more profitably - than federal agencies.
"If this (land transfer) were to occur, the first thing I'd want to understand is what's my mission," he says. "When it comes to state endowment lands, there's clarity of mission: We're generating revenue to support education. That mission isn't as clear on federal lands."
MANAGEMENT GOALS, VALUES MAY DIFFER
A switch from federal to state management would be transparent in some respects, Schultz says. The federal Endangered Species Act, Clean Air and Clean Water acts apply across all jurisdictions, and best management practices are largely the same.
"You wouldn't see significant differences in terms of effects on fish and streams," he says. "It may look different - typically, the federal government will have greater (riparian) buffers - but fundamentally you wouldn't see significant deviations under what we would do."
Visually, the state does more "even-age" timber management, Schultz says. His agency uses clear-cuts on about 30 percent of timber sales, whereas federal lands have more uneven-age stands and old-growth is rarely harvested, allowing for more diverse wildlife habitat.
That gets back to the issue of management goals and values. Even Shepherd faults the state for its "crop approach" to timber management.
"I believe public lands should be used for multiple interests, not just to supply the stud mill market," he says. "Mowing down 40 acres of trees is fine for private lands, if that's what the owner wants, but I'm concerned when the state does it. It has a negative impact on tourism, hunting and fishing and watershed protection."
From a procedural standpoint, Schultz says the endowment lands model is more streamlined than the federal approach. It offers less opportunity for public comment, less for a wide range of interests to have input - but that also means less opportunity for "analysis paralysis" and litigation.
Since he was hired in 2011, there hasn't been a single lawsuit on a state timber sale, whereas more than 200 million board feet has been litigated in Region 1 of the Forest Service.
"That volume gets tied up for years," Schultz says. "It increases your costs in terms of staff - more ecologists, more biologists, all the things you need to do to create a more 'defensible' document - not necessarily to make a better decision, but to be defensible in a court of law, so a judge feels you've evaluated a range of alternatives."
'HEALTH IS A VALUE STATEMENT, NOT A SCIENTIFIC STANDARD'
Jay O'Laughlin, director of the University of Idaho's Policy Analysis Group, says these kinds of trade-offs are inherent to any approach to public lands management.
At the federal level, the National Environmental Policy Act was created to try and balance competing interests. The problem is that it requires agencies to take a "hard look" at alternatives - language so vague it leaves them open to lawsuits on procedural issues, rather than substantive grounds.
"NEPA makes it extremely difficult to do large-scale projects," O'Laughlin says. "It forces agencies to look at smaller projects that are easier to defend. I've heard some (federal) managers say they won't do projects bigger than 5,000 acres because the NEPA process is too demanding."
Idaho has 20 million acres of national forests, he says. Doing a handful of 5,000- and 10,000-acre timber sales each year won't keep up with the bug kill, much less with the total annual growth.
"We grow about a billion cubic feet of wood in Idaho each year," O'Laughlin says. "Current Forest Service plans call for removing 5 percent of that. If we went back to the historic harvest of 800 million board feet, that still removes less than half. Bugs and fire kill about 40 percent, and more trees die every year."
While dead trees provide critical habitat for dozens of bird and wildlife species, they also create conditions for catastrophic wildfires, stymie economic opportunities and give the perception that federal forests aren't as healthy as state ones.
"Health is a value statement, not a scientific standard," O'Laughlin says. "Some people would say a no-harvest policy is the best for national forests, that it's the 'healthiest' approach. The trade-off is that you don't manage the fuels. In 2012, more acres burned in Idaho than in any other state. To me, that's not healthy."
But neither is losing access to public lands - and for the Idaho Conservation League, that's one of the biggest concerns with the land transfer proposal. Given how tight state budgets are, the group worries these lands will become a funding source, a type of savings account lawmakers can dip into during the next economic downturn or whenever they want to pay for another special-interest tax break - or when they need to maintain the 59,000 miles or so of forest roads they'd get along with the land transfer.
"One of the reasons Idaho is a growing state that has a positive long-term outlook is because we have this tremendous public land resource," Oppenheimer says. "We have wildlife, and hunting and fishing, and the most miles of white water in the Lower 48. Idahoans don't want to see 'no trespassing' signs go up. They put great value in access to public lands. Like (former governor) Cecil Andrus says, it's Idaho's second paycheck. On weekends, you can go out and have an alpine lake or blue-ribbon trout stream in most cases all to yourself. The value of that isn't something you can put into a balance sheet. It far outweighs the $50 million you might be able to generate by aggressively logging our heritage."
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Public lands ownership may be the fondest dream of many Western lawmakers today, but their predecessors had it in their grasp 83 years ago and walked away from the deal.
The offer was made in Boise on July 9, 1929. That's when Ray Lyman Wilbur, secretary of the Department of Interior under President Herbert Hoover, came into a Western governors meeting and said it was time for a new approach, a new public lands policy - one that included transferring ownership of more than 230 million acres of unappropriated federal lands to the states.
Hoover followed up with a more detailed proposal a month later: Sub-surface mineral rights weren't included in the offer, he said, and national forests, parks and monuments were excluded as well. However, nearly a tenth of the nation's total land area was up for grabs, giving states an opportunity to increase their tax base while improving management practices on Western grazing lands.
"This fundamentally is a proposition to not only simplify the federal relationship with the states, but to secure a positive conservation program under the management of the states and for the benefit of public schools," Hoover said.
All lawmakers had to do was reach out their hands. Instead, they turned up their noses.
Sen. William Borah, R-Idaho, complained that having the federal government retain the mineral rights was "like giving the states skimmed milk after all the cream had been extracted."
Utah Gov. George Henry Dern, a Democrat, said Western states already owned millions of acres of grazing lands they couldn't sell or lease. "Why should they want more of this precious heritage of desert?" he wondered.
Even after a presidential commission suggested national forest lands could be included in the transfer, opposition from the East and West was nearly unanimous.
"Perhaps no more universally unpopular public land bill had ever been introduced," noted author E. Louise Peffer in her book, "The Closing of the Public Domain." "No state would accept the remnants of the public domain as they stood."
The failure of the Hoover proposal dealt a massive blow to state's rights efforts. It led inexorably to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which provided the first direct authority for federal management of the unappropriated lands - an authority the government has yet to relinquish.
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