Congressional report shows the high costs of public land

Idaho would face many challenges if it took over federal forests, ranges.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comOctober 8, 2013 

Three federal agencies spent $392 million to manage 32 million acres of public land in Idaho in the 2012 budget year, a Congressional Research Service report shows.

The report shows that Idaho would have to make up for much of those costs if it succeeded in getting control over the land, as a resolution passed by the Idaho Legislature demands.

The Idaho Department of Lands has estimated that the state could raise $50 million to $75 million annually in timber receipts from federal land. But one cost not figured into the estimate could swallow that revenue by itself — $58 million in payments to counties under two programs, one that makes up for former timber revenues and another compensating for the fact that counties can't tax federal land.

The CRS report also suggests the state would have to significantly raise grazing fees to make up for the substantial subsidy federal managers provide.

The congressional report examines three federal agencies: the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service. A large portion of the management costs for the first two — $96 million — came from fighting wildfires.

Idaho lawmakers such as state Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, argue that the state could reduce firefighting costs if it managed the forests and rangelands better. Still, state foresters say they would have to go through a 15-year transition to get to a place where they could reduce fire costs.

"There is going to be a transition period when it's difficult for us," said Denney, co-chairman of an interim committee examining the land transfer issue. "Every year is different, but on an average once we transition in, we're in good shape."

Denney said counties and schools can't depend on the county payments to continue at their five-year average of $65 million a year. He said lawmakers would have to consider whether to continue such payments once the state controlled the land.

According to the CRS report, the federal government made only $18.5 million in revenue from lands in Idaho, half of that from mineral leases for phosphates in Southeast Idaho. Livestock grazing raised only $1.4 million in 2012 while the BLM spent $1.1 million for range improvements, not counting its management costs.

Already, the state charges at least three times as much as the federal government for grazing leases, Denney said. "That is something that would go up, but maybe the lands would be better managed," he said.

The CRS report is the latest evidence that a federal land transfer to any state would be a bad idea, said Jonathan Oppenheimer, public lands associate with the Idaho Conservation League.

"It appears this scheme doesn't pencil out for the state of Idaho economically or environmentally," Oppenheimer said.

The Department of Lands' self-described "napkin approach" to estimating the financial benefits underestimates the costs and overestimates the revenue that the state could realize, Oppenheimer said.

The ICL's own economic analysis, using the most optimistic of the state's assumptions, shows that the transfer would cost Idaho $1.5 billion over a decade and $2 billion over 20 years, without recreation, road and trail access figured in.

"The state would be left with little options but to sell off the land to generate revenue," Oppenheimer said.

Denney has said the Legislature has no intention of selling off the public lands and would keep them open for recreation. However, the resolution demanding that the federal government turn over all the land includes a review of how it would be sold.

Denney said the CRS report numbers don't account for the effects of a revived timber industry in the state.

"You're ignoring the economic impact of 15,000 to 20,000 jobs at $50,000 a year," Denney said. "That's a pretty good impact."

The report was requested by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that handles the Interior Department and related agencies. The goal was to help the state's legislative interim committee.

"I want to be clear that I draw no conclusions from the information contained in the report and share it with you without advocating any particular outcome of the Interim Committee's deliberations," Simpson wrote in a letter to Denney and his co-chairman, Republican Sen. Chuck Winder of Eagle.

The panel has held one meeting, at which Idaho Assistant Attorney General Steve Strack raised strong doubts that the legal argument behind the Legislature's resolution demanding the federal land would pass constitutional review.

Denney said the issues raised by the CRS report will have to be addressed before the committee makes a recommendation in 2015.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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