Rocky Barker: Treat federal payments like property taxes on the federal owner

April 22, 2013 

Heather Berg of the U.S. Forest Service peers across a canyon in the Nez Perce National Forest west of Elk City in 2000.

DARIN OSWALD — Darin Oswald

Skip Brandt, a former Republican state senator who today serves on the Idaho County Commission, has divided loyalties.

Brandt supports the resolution the Idaho Legislature passed that demands the federal government turn over all of its land to the state. Recently, Brandt testified before a U.S. House Resources subcommittee in favor of Republican Rep. Raul Labrador's bill that would set up pilot programs to allow state foresters to sell timber from federal lands.

Brandt also is a member of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, a group of environmentalists, sportsmen, loggers, timber industry executives, local officials and motorized recreation representatives working with the Forest Service. They are working to develop plans and funding for forest restoration work, recreation, job creation and even wilderness protection.

The three approaches - a state takeover, a pilot program on sales and forest collaboratives - don't work together. If the state has the land, it has the burden of the management costs. The pilot trusts are aimed solely at cutting timber and giving the proceeds to rural counties. Environmentalists and sportsmen groups will fight both of those ideas with all their national power behind them.

The collaborative seeks to develop a new path that will lead to more of what every group wants. The goal is to get past the gridlock that has gripped federal forests since the 1980s and '90s forest wars between environmentalists and the timber industry.

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

That Brandt can hold all these views means he's either brilliant or a pretty good politician.

Polls show the strong majority of Idahoans do not share lawmakers' hopes to see all of the federal land outside of wilderness and national parks go to state control. Fewer want it sold off to give Idaho a larger private tax base like Eastern states.

Brandt is skeptical of the polls and is especially certain that a majority of the residents of his county share his view.

When he was before the House committee and was asked how much timber had been harvested from the national forest in his county because of the collaborative, he said none.

None?

Forest Service officials have said that tens of millions of board feet of timber have been cut because of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative group's work. Hundreds of jobs have been created or protected. Timber industry officials back them up.

So, Brandt may have exaggerated. He, like many Idahoans who remember the big federal harvests of the 1950s through the 1980s, feels cheated that it ended. Some are bitter and others simply sad that they have to watch so much forest burn instead of being hauled away in logging trucks.

For county officials like Brandt, the loss of the 25 percent of Forest Service timber receipts to the counties where it was cut has forced them to go begging to the federal government to cover the costs of schools, roads, law enforcement and other mandated programs.

One of the answers is to permanently fully fund the payments-in-lieu-of-taxes program that pays local governments based on how much federal land they have. In Idaho County, 85 percent of the land base is owned by the federal government.

Consider Custer County, which is 94 percent federal. Commissioner Lin Hintze, of Mackay, has championed this issue in Congress, seeking fairness for rural counties like his.

Republican Sen. Mike Crapo correctly described payments in lieu of taxes (often simply called PILT) as, essentially, property taxes paid by the land's owner - the federal government. Commissioners like Brandt and Hintze should not have to go begging to the feds to pay for basic services in their counties.

Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson told E&E Reporter's Phil Taylor recently that a budget deal that would fund the county payments and the Land and Water Conservation Fund - a priority for environmental groups - may be possible.

"If they can find a way to tie full funding for PILT payments, make it mandatory, and Secure Rural Schools with Land and Water Conservation Fund, you might have something that could be sold," Simpson told E&E, which covers energy and environment news.

This won't resolve the debate over how we manage the resources we all share on our public lands. But it would ease the burden on struggling counties so the discussions can be about what best for the communities and the land.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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