Idaho lawmakers examine federal lands transfer

Experts tell the panel that full disposal of wild areas was never expected at statehood.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comAugust 10, 2013 

Idaho lawmakers don’t expect the Legislature’s demand that the U.S. government turn over all federal lands will get anywhere simply by its passage as a resolution this year.

Republican Sen. Chuck Winder, co-chairman of the Federal Lands Interim Committee, said the panel’s task is mostly educational, and it will not bring a recommendation back to the Idaho Legislature until 2015.

House Resolution 22 was modeled on similar legislation in Utah.

“Our expectation is we’re not going to hear anything from the federal government or get short-term or long-term results from that effort,” Winder said.

The legal argument underlying the House resolution and Utah’s measure was examined by two attorneys. They did not give the committee much support to follow Utah’s lead.

Donald Kochan, a Chapman Law professor from California, is a supporter of states’ rights. He says critics are too quick to dismiss the federal government’s implied promise to dispose of all of its federal lands in the compact made when Western states were created.

He said Idaho’s assurance that it would not make further claims on federal land at statehood does not automatically dismiss the federal duty to dispose of its lands.

He said further study is necessary to examine how the Idaho delegates at the time of statehood viewed the compact.

Idaho Assistant Attorney General Steve Strack said that in many references, delegates referred to the more than 3 million acres of land that were transferred to the state for schools as “grants.”

Delegates also supported the establishment of forest reserves, which permanently placed the land under federal control. Judge William Claggett, the chief architect of the Idaho Constitution, also drafted the law that created Yellowstone National Park.

“I do not suppose for a moment that we would ever have control over the public lands of the United States,” said delegate Weldon Heyburn, of Wallace, at the time of statehood.

The Idaho Legislature often criticized the size and placement of forest reserves, but also voted to support additional reserves, including the Sawtooth Mountains as a national park in 1917.

“They were more focused on the size of the reserves, not that there was a compact the federal government violated,” Strack said.

University of Idaho professor Jay O’Laughlin gave a history of federal land policy in Idaho and concluded that the Forest Service is no longer able to do its job efficiently. He suggested a trust management system, similar to the way the Idaho endowment lands are managed, could address the problem.

But he also said changing the rules that the Forest Service must meet would help streamline the process. .

Mostly, he blamed the Forest Management Planning Act passed in 1976.

“In my opinion it’s been a dismal failure,” O’Laughlin said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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