If anyone should get Idaho's 32 million acres of federal land, it should be the Indian tribes, tribal leaders said Monday.
Representatives of three of Idaho's Indian tribes testified before the Idaho Legislature's Federal Lands Interim Committee Monday. They added to the doubts about the legality, cost and value of transferring the state's popular public lands from federal to state management.
"If Congress is to transfer title to any lands, they should transfer them to their original owners, the Indian tribes," said Helo Hancock, legislative director of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.
But several speakers Monday, including timber industry representatives, offered solutions and ways for the state to improve public land management short of a state takeover.
Interim Committee Co-chairman Chuck Winder, a Republican senator from Boise, pointed out that the committee was formed under a resolution separate from the resolution passed by the Legislature demanding the federal government turn its lands over to the state.
The committee is open to all ideas, Winder said. "Whatever our outcome, I hope it will be very deliberative," he said.
The tribal leaders' message is that Indians have treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather on the public lands and their treaty rights are a trust responsibility the federal government must maintain. They don't support transferring them to the state.
"The tribes unequivocally oppose this notion," said Nathan Small, chairman of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.
The federal lands are there to "protect that way of life and not to satisfy the few corporate or special interests," Small said.
Under questioning, the tribal representatives said any transfer of federal land to the state would bring legal challenges from the tribes.
Timber industry representatives focused not on a state takeover, but on changing federal land management laws that they said discourage timber harvesting.
Several noted that reform of laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act can't be made by the Idaho Legislature.
"We know that change has to come from Washington, D.C., and likely won't come from Boise," said Jerry Deckard, speaking for 400 log-hauling contractors.
The timber industry is focused on the 23.5 percent of Forest Service land designated for timber production nationwide, said Robert Boeh, vice president of Idaho Forest Group, which has five sawmills in Idaho employing 800 people. It wants to see the same certainty for lands dedicated to timber production as lands designated for wilderness.
To do this, he advocated federal legislation that would clarify to the courts that timber production is the primary objective on that fourth of the national forests; clear targets for timber volume and acreage to ensure accountability; and streamlined environmental laws.
He would substitute the current appeals process for what he called baseball-style arbitration for resolving disputes: Opposing parties would be required to submit their vision for how the conflict would be resolved, and the arbitrator would pick the one option that is best for all.
Boeh said Idaho's Department of Lands could lay out and administer timber sales for the Forest Service and could use a new Department of Agriculture "good neighbor program" to manage adjacent or intermingled lands that people agree should be managed for timber production.
Overall, Boeh said, this could mean 3 million acres of national forest in Idaho managed for timber production outside of wilderness and roadless areas, producing an additional 300 million board feet annually and creating 5,100 jobs.
That's less than half the acreage the Idaho Department of Lands said could be managed for timber production in its quick estimate for the committee.
Tribal, conservation, sporting and recreation groups all expressed a preference for the collaborative approach to management they have been engaged in with the timber industry and others on the Clearwater and Nez Perce national forests and in Boundary and Payette counties. That has 131 million board feet of timber in various stages of approval on the way to mills, said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League.
Groups from the Idaho Cattle Association to the timber industry expressed support for the collaborative process. But Boeh, whose company is deeply involved in several collaborative groups, said it is slow and costly.
"Collaboration is a tool to be used, it's not a solution to the problem," he said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484