A handful of bills recently introduced in the Idaho State Legislature strike a worrisome note. These bills — SB 1338, HR 582 and HR 586 — would have the effect of introducing a measure of chaos into extant methods of public land management, and ultimately erode our capacity to preserve the natural bounty of Idaho. SB 1338 would give sheriffs and county officials the ability to unilaterally impede federal management initiatives, while HR 582 and 586 represent efforts to transfer public lands from federal to state control.
The legal justifications for land transfer are spurious. Idaho ceded all claim to certain lands upon admission to the United States, and the Supreme Court has consistently held that Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution grants federal agencies broad authority in managing said lands.
These new bills are manifestations of a decades-long push to shift public lands from their status as living monuments to America’s wild roots and a common resource for outdoor enthusiasts — hunters, fishermen, hikers, birders and so forth — into an engine for economic development. Little surprise, then, that these bills employ language echoing positions outlined in policy initiatives sculpted by corporate special interest groups.
HR 582, for instance, would compel state management agencies to make “the most efficient and economically beneficial use of surface resources.” This is the milquetoast version of “highest value use” proposals. These advocate a paradigm in which land use is dictated by profitability.
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The problem with this is that, unless legally coerced by some meddling government agency, few interests putting tracts of land to their highest value use would have any incentive to invest in preserving their natural wonder. Doing so, on any tract of land where “highest value” use was not already synonymous with “conservation,” would necessarily entail a cost, which any rational economic agent should work to minimize. As a consequence, no resource extraction operation will ever have any economic motivation to guard against pollution or decreases in biodiversity.
True, there are some flaws in current land management practices, but transferring public lands to state ownership and management will not remedy any of them. Instead, land transfers will produce their own sets of problems, including powerful incentives toward outright privatization. The advocates of divestiture aren’t villains, but men and women deeply devoted to an ideological orientation that occasionally inclines them toward lamentable bouts of irrationality and fanaticism.
In no uncertain terms, land transfer initiatives represent a serious step down the road toward an abject forfeiture of the natural bounty granted as a birthright of U.S. citizenship. No more camping, hiking, hunting, fishing for anyone, save those wealthy enough to pay for an excursion to one of those places where a land’s highest-value use is a high-ticket canned experience. Worse still, it is an unequivocal recipe for ecological disaster. By allowing states to seize control of public lands, we would be abandoning the fruits of generations of bipartisan efforts to preserve some of our nation’s last remaining wild places.
Zane Joseph Beal recently finished his M.S. in anthropology at Idaho State University. A camper, hiker, hunter and amateur photographer, he works as a lab assistant and reference librarian in Pocatello.