Idaho Political Commentary

Guest Opinion: Priest Lake presents a great state vs. federal basis for a public lands study

Somewhere within the debate over who can best manage public lands — the federal government or the states — is a tacit assumption that state lands, because they are managed to produce revenue, must therefore fail to produce important environmental values. Conversely, then, federal lands, managed for multiple uses, should routinely provide more or “better” public benefits. It’s time to challenge that assumption.

After 40 years of management under clear environmental protections and with the guidance of any number of biologists, hydrologists and archaeologists, among other specialists, shouldn’t there now be tangible results? After all, management of the national forests and BLM public lands is an expensive proposition. So the question is this: Does the difference in the legal mandates under which federal lands must be managed coupled with the costs of that management produce demonstrably higher environmental or economic values than state lands? Do the trees and grass on federal lands grow more quickly? Are fires less expensive and destructive? Is water quality within federal watersheds better? Are there more fish or is hunting better on federal lands? Are there more huckleberries? Are communities more stable because of the requirements for managing nearby federal lands?

Those are questions that deserve a credible answer. But why argue these points in the abstract when Idaho has a unique opportunity to shed some real light on the question? The west side of Priest Lake is under federal management while the east side is state endowment lands plus state parks. The ecosystems are identical, with similar recreational use, timber management, fire history and such public interests as fish, wildlife or threatened and endangered species. Let’s use this unique juxtaposition of federal and state lands for a complete “audit” of each side. Let’s look at recreational use and revenues; timber production and revenues; fire history; miles of roads; clear-cut equivalent acres; the quality of water and fish habitat in individual streams; occurrences of forest insects and disease; size and costs of the workforce for each program function; wildlife habitat quality and use by such key species as grizzly bears; hunter success; and undoubtedly other parameters that would surface as a product of the study. Heck, you could probably add in a comparison of huckleberry picking success.

The result should be a defensible analysis of the benefits and costs of federal vs state management for two large areas of similar size, ecosystems and uses. There is probably no other area in the country where there can be such a clear comparison. Much of the data exists. DEQ, for example, maintains extensive historical records of water quality for probably all of the streams within the Priest Lake watershed. Fish and Game keeps tabs on hunting and fishing success. Each agency should have data on past expenses and accomplishments. Some of it may take a bit of digging, but there are any number of qualified researchers in Idaho who are up to the task. Who knows what the results might be, but if environmental, economic and public values on the state side are better or equal to those on the side managed by the Forest Service, then that does open a legitimate debate over just what value to the public the morass of expensive federal laws and specialist-driven management is really providing.

Let’s bring some science to the discussion. Somebody do the study. Take the test. I dare you.

Joe Hinson is the former director of Idaho’s timber industry association (1982-1998). He is now retired.