Idaho’s three-year campaign to force the government to transfer most of the 35 million acres of federal land to the state ended when a state Senate committee voted April 1 against joining Utah and Arizona in a compact to study legal action.
The vote was a victory for sportsmen and conservation groups, who have fought vigorously against an idea they worry could lead to the sale of places they hunt, fish, hike, camp and ride. It also was an affirmation of U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo’s 25-year campaign to shift public land policy away from confrontation to collaboration between conservationists, ranchers, loggers and local officials.
“It’s going to take a cooperative effort of all of the stakeholders to get to solutions,” said State Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, a co-chair of the interim legislative committee that studied the public lands issue at the direction of the 2014 Legislature.
But just as Idaho legislators were moving away from the land transfer idea, the U.S. Senate approved a budget resolution that would establish a procedure for selling, exchanging or transferring to the states federal lands that aren’t national parks, monuments or reserves. The amendment, sponsored by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, passed 51-49 on March 26, with Idaho Republicans Crapo and Sen. Jim Risch both voting yes.
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The reaction was immediate from the sporting groups and conservationists working with Crapo on his biggest initiative, the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, designed to advance forest restoration programs that increase timber harvests, create jobs, improve habitat and protect wilderness.
“I’m really disappointed,” said Holly Endersby, of Riggins, the Idaho chapter representative for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “I expected better from both of our senators.
“We’re working to protect public lands and this amendment says, no matter what we come up with, sometime in the future it could all be undone.”
Crapo, too, is frustrated, mainly that critics of the resolution say it supports selling public land, a position he emphatically opposes. But he said he has long considered that the deal Western states got on the public land within their borders was unfair, since states east of the Mississippi were given more land.
“The question of state involvement in federal lands is very appropriate,” Crapo said. “People who read any more into this are stretching what this is about.”
Those people include Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., who wrote in The Wall Street Journal last Thursday that the vote does support the idea of transferring federal lands to states.
Rather than undercutting his collaborative initiatives, Crapo said, the Murkowski resolution actually helps them.
“In a way, it facilitates the process of bringing forth a bill that collaboration would produce,” Crapo said.
That doesn’t convince Endersby, whose group was formed to protect public lands and who spends most of her time hunting, fishing, horseback riding and camping in Idaho’s federal forests and rangeland.
“The bill actually does forge a path for future legislation to transfer public lands to state and local governments,” Endersby said. “It’s the actual wording of the bill that matters.”
CHALLENGED IN NEXT ELECTION?
For a senator facing re-election in 2016, votes matter more than words. For Western conservatives, the land transfer issue gained steam in 2012 when Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill demanding that the federal government turn over its holdings to the state. Murkowski’s new resolution is viewed by pundits as a litmus test or proxy for this latest chapter in the Sagebrush Rebellion movement.
In Idaho, Crapo’s main re-election threat is seen as a challenge from the right in the closed Republican primary.
Rep. Raul Labrador, the strongest political figure right of Crapo, has told him that he won’t challenge him. And Labrador has stopped short of endorsing transfer of the title of public lands to states, calling instead for state management of national forests.
Risch, who voted as Crapo did, declined to comment for this story.
“It’s sort of stunning that Sen. Crapo is jeopardizing everything he has stood for,” said John Freemuth, a political science professor at Boise State University who writes about public lands.
The federal bill could hurt the Clearwater and the state sage grouse plan, two major collaborative efforts that are both at sensitive stages. Crapo’s opposition likely would have killed the Murkowski resolution, Freemuth said, and would have continued the move toward collaboration that Idaho has taken.
“A real leader would be able to overcome fear of a potential primary run,” he said.
Crapo said he rejects the view that the vote was a litmus test and he expressed frustration that it’s perceived as support for the transfer of public lands.
“The interpretations are not only wrong,” Crapo said, “but an incredible stretch, and they misrepresent my position.”
Crapo isn’t the only Western senator under fire from his vote on the land transfer measure. During his campaign, newly elected Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., told voters that he didn’t think transferring land was “feasible.” Now the Billings Gazette and sportsmen’s groups are calling the Montanan’s vote a flip-flop.
The flap could open the conservative to a challenge, and an infusion of money, from the left. And the same could happen in Idaho.
With the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing unlimited campaign spending by so-called super-PACs, Democrats say the public land issue alone could attract funding and help their efforts to recruit an Idaho challenger. Crapo also voted in 2013 to shut down the government, as did Risch and Labrador.
“This will spark a lot of interest in potential top-notch opponents for Crapo, and these challengers will find highly motivated partners in the conservation and sportsmen communities, who are vital in terms of volunteer recruitment as well as campaign contributions,” said Dean Ferguson, Idaho Democratic Party communications director.
Endersby said Crapo’s vote won’t make her pull out of the Clearwater Collaborative because the relationships she’s forged with all of the participants are too important. But she thinks Crapo has the public land issue backward.
She moved west 44 years ago from Chicago to have access to millions of acres without trespassing signs, locked gates and fences.
“The states that got the short end of the stick are the Eastern states, because they are impoverished of public land,” she said.