Rocky Barker: Shutdown shows we love our public lands

October 21, 2013 

Rocky Barker

That’s at least one lesson we’ve learned from the 16-day federal shutdown.

People from both sides of the partisan divide were angry when they lost access to the places where they love to hunt, camp, drive, hike, bike, paddle, play, work and get away.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the West.

“This goes right back to what Wallace Stegner said that Westerners so much cherish our public land because it represents our freedom,” said John Freemuth, a former park ranger and current professor of political science at Boise State University.

For most people the shutdown was neither partisan nor ideological. I spoke with students on the bus Thursday and mentioned the shutdown ended.

They barely knew it happened. But fall is a busy time for many Idahoans, who like me headed into the fields, forests and waterways to hunt.

Hunters were forced by the shutdown to find out whether their favorite place was open. Some of the campgrounds they used were closed, and boat landings were even barricaded in some cases.

These barriers angered many on the right who viewed it as a political move to make the shutdown as painful as possible.

“Apparently the ‘federal’ lands/facilities are not true public lands/property after all, but rather are the bureaucracy’s property,” said Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt.

But other Idahoans were equally angry at House Republicans, who triggered the shutdown when they forced their leadership to draw a line at defunding or delaying the Affordable Care Act. These House members, including Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, were saying as late as Thursday that their leaders should simply have raised the debt ceiling and kept the shutdown in place.

That would have extended the impacts, including those to sawmill owner Brad Jensen of Ovid. Jensen blamed both sides.

But he said the Forest Service’s decision to shut down his logging operation showed why the Legislature’s demand that the federal government turn over its land to Idaho makes sense.

John T. Reuter, executive director of Conservation Voters for Idaho, takes away a completely different message from the shutdown. He points to Utah, which paid $1.7 million to keep its canyon-land parks open for 10 days, as an example of how much it costs to manage public lands. He doesn’t think Idaho can afford that cost.

But Utah paid it because its parks are worth $100 million in income for October alone.

“It shows you in clear fiscal terms that public lands have value to the states they are in,” Reuter said.

Economists estimate the U.S. economy lost $24 billion. That may include the thousands of dollars that Jensen lost when he had to pull his crew from the woods a week ago, the payroll they lost and the added costs for going back in.

Jensen is convinced Idaho would come out ahead, especially for its schoolchildren, if the state were to take over the public lands and harvest timber like it did in the 1970s and 1980s.

But Reuter said a recent Congressional Research Service report, which showed the federal government spent $392 million to manage 32 million acres in Idaho, also shows that the state could not afford it. Idaho would be forced to sell the land.

“The Idaho proposal would close public lands to the public not just for two weeks, but forever,” he said.

I don’t know who is right, but I know few would support selling off Idaho’s crown jewels.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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